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. db

    If I wasted 1% I'd be surprised. I really find it sinful to waste food when so many people are going hungry in this crazy, mixed-up world.

    August 22, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. cleareye1

    The makers of our food encourage the waste. And the makers also want us to be fat and lazy so we won't object to giving them our money. Works really well in the red states. Check the butts in a Walmart.

    August 22, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Polar Bear

    I agree. Most of what you see on plates after families at restaurants finish their meals could feed a family of four. Whatever happened to "eating everything on your plate?" No one even mentions it anymore.

    August 22, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • William

      At restaurants sometimes you can't eat all the food on your plate because you walk in hungry and buy everything in site then they pile the food on your plate and give you bread then a salad to eat and when the main course comes in your not as hungry as you were when you walked in and then hear comes desert.

      August 22, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • FarLeft

      This is correct. I work in a hotel, that serves-up a cook-to-order breakfast (this is religion in this particular hotel chain), and the business and pleasure clientele order FAR more food than they can ever eat. To "thomas': I don't care if you come-in hungry. Unless you are a five-year-old child, you should know how much you can and cannot eat. We throw-away enough food, on a daily basis, to run the breakfast another day, without cooking anything new! This is done everday, all-week, every-month, all-year, since the hotel opened in 2000. If it were up to me, this kind-of waste would be a crime. Legalize pot, criminalize waste. Ha!

      August 22, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • shawn L

      You shouldn't eat everything on your plate. That leads to being fat. You eat until you are no longer hungry.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      I always eat my meals to be sure I only leave behind what reheats well. I will always take my leftovers, even if it's just half of a serving of fries or even the free bread from the table!

      August 22, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • William

      To Far: You cant always go into a restaurant and order from a menu just what you want to eat and this apply's to most restaurants. They use to have cafeterias and you could get just what you wanted to eat because you could pick out the food.

      August 22, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • RF Burns

      I take the leftovers home then have it the next day. Cuts down on waste.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • William

      Also in some restaurants they cook/make large amounts of certain foods so they will have enough on hand for customers. Usually by the end of the shift the people in the kitchen eat the rest of this food. Anything that is left on a plate is dumped by the people running the dish washer.

      August 22, 2012 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      That is advise that will create fat people. How much people eat should not be the measure of what's placed on a plate, it should be specific measure of calories. Restaurants are guilty of loading plates with empty calories to make us feel like we got our money's worth.

      August 23, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mandor

    Depends on what they call food. I'm not sure Kraft Mac+Cheese counts.

    *Sigh* but it's probably the actual good and perishable food that's going to waste, while the preserved junk gets eaten.

    August 22, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Francisco

    How is it that we waste 40% of food yet we are still an obese country? lol

    August 22, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • RF Burns

      Interesting point. I suppose it would be worse if we didn't waste as much. Go figure, huh?

      August 22, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  6. William

    Say what i am lucky if i eat than buy more food than i can eat. And if i eat out its because i don't have any food in the fridge.

    August 22, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • shawn L

      Eating out is far more expensive than cooking your own meals.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ORChuck

    "Food is simply too good to waste," the report says.

    But food is - or can be - also dangerous.

    Today, CNN runs a scandal report about food being thrown away. Just the other day, CNN was running a story about cantaloupes and honeydew melons being recalled (and destined for destruction) because of possible listeria contamination. Most of those melons are probably perfectly-safe to eat. But the operative words in that last sentence are most and probably. Which of you wants to find out?

    We throw away a lot of food out of an abundance of caution. Because of that, incidents of food-borne illness in the US are much lower than in other countries.

    If we want to reduce our wastage, we'll have to accept a greater risk and higher incident of food-borne illnesses. That's a tough sell.

    August 22, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • RF Burns

      You'll never get out of this life alive.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ~~~

    its too expensive.

    August 22, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
  9. William

    Being obese may be do to genetics and not do to over eating.

    August 22, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • AdoptedUSA

      No, it's both genetics & over eating, specially sugary food. And by the way t's not do to, it's due to. English is my my second language though!

      August 22, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • William

      Some people cannot process lipids/fat some people can process the right amount of lipids/fat and some people process to much lipids/fat. So in most cases its not what you eat its how well you process what you eat. 🙂

      August 22, 2012 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • RF Burns

      Nice try, tubby.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Then explain why obesity is not nearly as prevalent in almost all other nations of the world.

      August 22, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      It has everything to do with eating more than you need.

      August 23, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      Food should be more expensive. Water and trash services are heavily subsidized which leads to waste. Just let the real market prices guide people to proper consumption.

      August 23, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Angie Minetto

      Oh please, WAKE UP!

      August 27, 2012 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  10. BlackDynamite

    Definitely something a fat person who overeats would say......

    August 22, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  11. BlackDynamite

    I would HOPE that supermarkets that have food they can't sell would set up a way to donate to places that could use the food.....

    August 22, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • RF Burns

      Sad, isn't it? Maybe something to do with health department laws.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Larry


    August 22, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • shawn L

      Most of the food waste comes from restaurants, and grocery stores when food goes bad during transportation or isn't used/sold before it goes bad.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leonardo


      It makes it eaier to ignore you

      August 22, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Vignesh

    This article is incorrect when it says that you could feed millions of Americans from the wasted food. The only change if there was zero wasted food is the demand for food would go down, dropping prices. In the long run the supply would change and there would be a minimal impact to the price. Meanwhile, people who can't afford food won't be able to buy more food, because they still can't afford it. You would probably also lose jobs in the food industry because of the lost demand, but stabilization over time would have a minimal effect there.. So in the end, wasting less food wouldn't really solve the hunger problem. Providing economic opportunities would.

    August 22, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. William

    I am not fat. 🙂

    August 22, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Chris

    I don't see how they can say that "most of the waste comes in the home" when apparently we throw out 25% of our food, but on average 40% of all food is wasted? That means a higher percentage must be coming from somewhere else...

    I buy in bulk but only what is non-perishable or I know I can eat within the expiration date. I rarely throw away food, because I feel terrible when I do it.

    August 22, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
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