40% of U.S. food wasted, report says
Average supermarket losses are 11.4% for fresh fruit, the report says.
August 22nd, 2012
12:45 PM ET

40% of U.S. food wasted, report says

Forty percent of food in the United States is never eaten, amounting to $165 billion a year in waste, taking a toll on the country's water resources and significantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council released this week.

The group says more than 20 pounds of food is wasted each month for each of 311 million Americans, amounting to $1,350 to $2,275 annually in waste for a family of four. Think of it as dumping 80 quarter-pound hamburger patties in the garbage each month, or chucking two dozen boxes of breakfast cereal into the trash bin rather than putting them in your pantry.

The report points out waste in all areas of the U.S. food supply chain, from field to plate, from farms to warehouses, from buffets to school cafeterias.

"Food is simply too good to waste," the report says. "Given all the resources demanded for food production, it is critical to make sure that the least amount possible is needlessly squandered on its journey to our plates."

Most of the waste comes in the home, the report says.

"American families throw out approximately 25% of the food and beverages they buy," the report says. It cites several reasons, including that food has been so cheap and plentiful in the United States that Americans don't value it properly.

"Food represents a small portion of many Americans' budgets, making the financial cost of wasting food too low to outweigh the convenience of it," the report says. "This issue of wasted food is simply not on the radar of many Americans, even those who consider themselves environment- or cost-conscious."

Enticed by impulse buys, sales and savings by buying in bulk, Americans simply buy more food than they can eat, the report says. Part of that problem comes from poor planning - such as impromptu decisions to eat out when there's still food in the fridge - and when we do cook at home, making enough to fill the plate rather than what we actually need to eat.  The average size of the U.S. dinner plate is 36% bigger now than it was in 1960, the report says.

Portion sizes account for significant food loss in restaurants, too, it says. Seventeen percent of the food in restaurant meals is not eaten, the report says, but too much food is served.

"Today, portion sizes can be two to eight times larger than USDA or FDA standard serving sizes," the report says.

And restaurants stock more food than they serve, it says.

"Particularly wasteful are large buffets, which cannot reuse or even donate most of what is put out because of health code restrictions," the report says.

Changes can be made in school cafeterias, too, according to the report. It encourages schools to serve lunch after recess so students would have more time to eat and therefore eat some of what they waste now.

Retailers also bear some responsibility, the report says.

"The retail model views waste as a part of doing business," it says, noting that stores may be looked at suspiciously by their corporate parents if their waste numbers are too low. "Industry executives and managers view appropriate waste as a sign that a store is meeting quality-control and full-shelf standards."

Among the problems at the retail level, according to the report:

  • Stores overstock displays of fresh produce to give an impression of bounty, leaving items at the bottom bruised and unsellable.
  • They make too much ready-to-eat food. "One grocer estimated that his store threw away a full 50% of the rotisserie chickens that were prepared," the report said.
  • They throw out food in damaged or outdated promotional packaging (think holiday cookies) that is still edible.

Waste also occurs on the farm and in the packing house.

"Approximately 7% of planted fields in the United States are typically not harvested each year," the report says.

Among the possible reasons cited in the report: Growers can't get a good enough price for their crop to make harvest profitable, or they overplanted and have more crop than there is demand for, or the food is of edible quality but not marketable.

"A packer of citrus, stone fruit, and grapes estimated that 20% to 50% of the produce he handles is unmarketable but perfectly edible," the report says.

All that waste has environmental costs, the report says.

Food production accounts for 80% of the country's fresh water consumption, but the waste of food means 25% of the fresh water is actually wasted.

And wasted food rotting in landfills accounts for 25% of U.S. methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere as long as 15 years and is 20 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The report says there are places to look for better examples on how to use our food resources. For example, American food waste is 10 times what is experienced in Southeast Asia.

And we can also look to our own history. Waste is up 50% since the 1970s, the report says.

One key recommendation of the report is standardization of date labels on food. Americans may be throwing out a substantial amount of edible food simply because they misinterpret a "sell by" date as a "use by" date, the report says.

It also says the economic model of the food chain may need to change.

"There is the plain economic truth that the more food consumers waste, the more those in the food industry are able to sell," the report says.

If these problems can be fixed, the nation's hungry could benefit, according to the report.

"Reducing losses by just 15% could feed more than 25 million Americans every year," the report says.

The National Resources Defense Council is an environmental action group with more than 1.3 million members. It works to combat global warming, defend wildlife, create clean energy, cut pollution, protect waters supplies and revive the world's oceans, according to its website.

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Filed under: Agriculture • Energy • Environment • Food
soundoff (519 Responses)
  1. ROMNEY 2012

    12 chickens in every garbage can and a gas guzzling car in every garage!

    August 22, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  2. max3333444555

    i often buy produce that lasts about 1/2 hour past getting it home before it is bad. i know. i should stop buying produce at w-almart

    August 22, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Philip

    This does NOT look good on our NATIONAL REUSUME', especially next to our National Adult Literacy Survey proving to the world how stupid we are, statistically.
    Mix-in our nationwide obesity epidemic and our huge public debt (and among the weakest GDP to public debt ratios in the world) and we ain't lookin' too good to the international community.
    One might say that we resemble an obese 12 yr. old with ADD carrying a loaded shotgun and wearing a plastic "World Police" badge made in China, who fronted allowance to buy the shotgun.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chubby

      Don't forget that 2/3's of Americans are fat and obese.
      That extra food is wasted too.
      Makes the real number closer to 80%.

      August 22, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mike

    Waste is a funny concept.
    Consider what eliminating it would do:
    * reduced consumer spending
    * loss of jobs (farming/warehousing/transportation/retail)
    * less money "perishing" (literally) -> inflation
    Waste, for lack of a better word, is good.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan

      Not likely. The money saved would be spent in other ways, hopefully on something not so wasteful. This would produce jobs have no effect on consumer spending

      August 22, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  5. digital

    America "The Beautiful", sorry I mean "The Wasteful"

    August 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Philip

    "If" we are the problem. LMAO. Good one. Top THAT @bobcat(IAH).

    August 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Nate

    Well here is a thought. Quit subsidizing corn and other food!!! Let the market take it's course. Then we might also get healthier alternatives other than corn, corn syrup, and everything else made from corn.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. SPF

    Great, they tell us how much we waste, without any real ideas on how to prevent said waste. Another useless report. A sell by date law. C'mon. Great we can give garbage food, rather than fresh food, to the poor, costing more in health costs. How does this account for the fact that growers need to produce a large enough amount of perishable food to make it worth while, unless people want food prices to rise. Tell a farmer he has to cut his crop by 50 % because we waste it, but he can't charge more. And yet there will be enough to feed so many more.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. SixDegrees

    So the article starts out making it sound as though this is some personal responsibility issue...then switches gears and makes it sound like evil corporations are really to blame...then switches back to it being a personal problem...

    I'm guessing a more accurate conclusion is that it's all BS.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Philip

    @Mike. Inflation isn't waste.
    Inflation 101
    Inflation began when coins were first minted. Greedy people would file the edges of ea. coin they had, eroding the actual value of the gold or silver coin.
    Banknotes helped, but are based on the idea that bankers are honest.
    Inflation is the result of greed, not waste.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. joebob

    Wait a minuet what about all the food that doesn’t sell before its expiration date and has to be removed from, the shelves. I see things like strawberry’s that are practically spoiled on the shelves at a grocery store and are marked down , that don’t sell. How much of that is wasted because it never sold. I know dry goods are a different story. But what about foods that have a high spoilage rate how much does that account for, like produce or meats?

    August 22, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lady K

      Good Point. Maybe the strawberries would sell faster if they were the same price as a pack of cookie. I wish it was the other way around. Cookies and other sugary snacks $5. Fruits and veggies $1.99.

      August 22, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Plantiful

    I have long believed that supermarkets should take 1-5 day expired, prepared foods, 1-day expired refrigerated / frozen foods and give them to local charities with a clear exemption from liability (watch out for lawyers), and give them a tax write off. Food beyond these narrow but (get established) safe windows goes to the dumpster. This provides an economic incentive to get soon-expired foods out of the store to charity, where it is need, and saves the food from being wasted.

    Food is generally too cheap, thanks to the distortion of the market with the corn subsidies which gives us the unhealthy grain-fed beef, unhealthy high fructose corn syrup, and super-sized everything.

    Get rid of the corn subsidies,too. The USDA once paid farmers to not grow so much corn to provide a price support. The corn industry (ADM, Cargill, Monsanto) lobbied the USDA in the 1970s to change from paying not to grow to subsidies, and now we have an obesity epidemic, rampant Type 2 diabetes, and wasted food. Nice job there, government.

    We can fix this.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
  13. youarenotspecial

    I'm tossing a sandwich out in the street right now, just because I can.

    Got 99 problems, but food ain't one!

    August 22, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mark

    Greenhouse gas emission, toll on water resources...how about the millions who die every day from sheer hunger. With this kind of waste here in the greatest country on earth we should effort towards getting this food to those who need it first and foremost.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Fraser

    we dont waste a thing in our household, we shop once a week and eat it all until the fridge is empty, then shop again. If we waste $50 a year it is a lot, and we never eat out if we have enough at home. It is down to commonsense and coming from the North of England, where we ate everything and were creative with our cooking. My family look in the fridge and say it's empty, i look and make a great meal and suprise them everytime.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
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