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. ~~~

    Most of our food is poisoned with corn and corn derivatives, oxalates, plasticizers, tinned vegetables, heavy metals, DEHP, PVC, xenoestrogens, phthalates, nitrites, nitrates anyway. so most of it isn't really food.

    August 22, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Violet Weed

    Don't worry about methane gas in landfills, not here in the USA... because the modern landfills reclaim that gas.

    August 22, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Kevin

    yet, half earth's population doesn't have enough to eat..

    August 22, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  4. dennis

    Chickens solved my food waste problem. They are less picky than a pig.

    August 22, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Bubba North

    Another untrue article by this agency.

    August 22, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bill

    what do you expect from a bunch of spoiled fat americans? stop eating you pigs!!!!!

    August 22, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Henry

      Mad we still run the world? Come to America and be great or keep living where you are and be sh!t.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • FatAmerican

      Did you read the article? The reason we are throwing food away is because we arent eating it. Stupid Euro Trash.

      August 22, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
  7. RF Burns

    Doesn't surprise me. Especially in the schools where the kids often throw away the foods that are the most nutritious.It's been said schools have the healthiest garbage cans in America. Sad.

    August 22, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • n_IL

      I agree this is not surprising, but schools, really? Tip of the ice berg, and at least the food is being put in front of someone.

      Have you worked in the food industry? A fast food chain disposes tons (literal pounds) of unsold product –every– night. I'm talking dumster full each night. Now imagine every McD's, BK, KFC, PizzaHut, etc you drive past every day to work. Tons every night in the trash. The entire country.

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

      Yeah, but RF said "nutritious" food. McDonalds and BK dumpsters aren't nutritious. I do have a job that puts me in schools from time to time and last time I was in one I saw two totally untouched apples sitting on top of the trash bin.

      August 22, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  8. RIchard

    All the food, I buy, I eat! Nothing gets throw out! 40 percent of that food gets throw out! I guess, it depends on the person! If you eat out all the time! Why stuff the frig with food to throw out! Thats a waste of food! And money! You could save all that money on throw out food! Or buy food in cans and check the expire date! Thats only common sense!
    I'll tell you one thing! If your living on food stamps and just getting by! You! don't throw out NOTHING! Unless your breeding kids just to get more FOOD STAMPS!

    August 22, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • n_IL

      The waste is in the food and catering industry. . What a personal family throws out is pennies on the 1,000 dollar bill in comparison.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. RF Burns

    When I was a kid, my mother would really get on my case if I didn't clean my plate. "There are starving people in China who would love to have what you don't want to eat" she would say. Then one day I said, "Name one". Couldn't sit down for a week!

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

      To RF...My dad used to say..eat your food,the Armenians are starving..One day I said.."OK give me an envelope I'll send it to them"..I couldn't sit down for a week either...LOL

      August 23, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. John

    I am amazed at how picky people are now days. I'm in my sixties, and growing up, you ate what was served. If there was anything left over you put it in a container, put it in the refrigerator and had it a couple of nights later, or used it as ingredients for something else. We raised OUR family along the same lines. And you N-E-V-E-R wasted meat!

    Even now, we still try to use up all leftovers. I keep hearing stories about families we know that don't like leftovers, so if there is food remaining at the end of a meal, they just throw it away. Now, I am not advocating eating month old leftovers, but use some sense.

    Sometimes allowing to marinate a day or two makes them even better. If you throw away leftovers and you have trouble stretching your food budget – no wonder!

    August 22, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Report abuse |
  11. grist

    The article does not talk about how much energy goes into producing the food that is wasted which is immense.

    August 22, 2012 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
  12. DIng Dong

    Like anyone can even know that.

    August 22, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Sebass

    40% of americans deserve to die hungry (: I don't waste food and never attend too. some people just need to start dying of starvation then the problem will be solved

    August 22, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
  14. William

    I counted the word waste about 20 times so lets stick to the subject. If someone is trying to make a living selling food they are going to try to use up or reuse every thing they can. So what is left is waste and not worth selling or cant be sold. Sure some of this can be used or reused but most of it cant. Should we pay for good produce when we are getting something that really should be put in the dumpster.

    August 22, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Clyde M

      Yeah, but I think that misses the point of the article. Such as stores purposefully over-ordering food knowing it will cause spoilage just so their stores look full or manufacturers changing packaging to things like holiday packaging knowing half the product will be thrown out while still good simply because of the packaging.

      WHY the food is wasted really isn't tho point so much as a lot of the issues can actually be addressed if we wanted to.

      August 22, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |
  15. bella11

    This country deserves a famine!!!!!!!

    August 22, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • William

      One of the top exports in this country is food so if their is a food shortage here their will also be a food shortage of some items in other countries. Like corn and wheat etc.

      August 22, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
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