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. puddintane

    Aye, as if the US needed any more reasons to be hated, loathed, despised, it wastes food and then gloats over its propensity to eat trough its shirt front and lap: "When I'm cut open at my autopsy, my arteries are gonna look like undigested Tco Bell burritos bwahaha (sic) your just jelaous haha". A little bit of 9/11 can be found in virtually every fast food restaurants trash can.

    August 22, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  2. theseconddavid

    If you are fat, you aren't poor. If you think the rich should be taxed more and you are being taxed too much, you aren't poor, you are a thief.

    August 22, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Clyde M

      Poor is relative and it is often the poor who are fatter because healthy food costs more money. It is the bad-for-you stuff that is cheaper. There are a variety of reasons, but that's pretty common. Often being fat is not a sign of the ability to purchase as abundance of food as it is a sign of not being able to afford to purchase healthy food.

      August 22, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Report abuse |
  3. William

    Sure for the past year we have been having a drought and this may reduce the amount of food available. But people are starving because of the high cost of food and the lack of money to buy food and not because of lack of food.

    August 22, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Clyde M

      There are also a lot of laws and business policies that make donating this wasted food very difficult. I've worked in several restaurants and asked several times why we threw out certain items and was told every time that donating it either wasn't allowed (legally) or wasn't as beneficial (got a bigger tax break writing it off as waste than by donating it, but the law said to be written off as waste it had to actually be wasted–e.g., thrown out and not donated).

      So yeah, a lot of people are starving because they can't afford food, but a lot of food that is perfectly good and could be going to food banks and homeless shelters isn't because of legal and corporate policies and red tape.

      August 22, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Report abuse |
  4. nepphewSam

    Most of this food is wasted because is expired, is mostly produce. The question is: should prices of these products fall because there is not enough"demand"? maybe it is a good way to keep prices high... food is not appreciated because almost 90% are produced with help of GMO's , a cheap way to mass produce profits... think about it...research about it, and stop being proud and elusive....

    August 22, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
  5. William

    The United States accounts for over half the global export market for corn and nearly half of the soybean market. Some corn ends up in products like cereal and soda, but the biggest chunk is used as feedstock for pork, chicken and beef. Unlike in 2007, when a worldwide drought sparked serious food shortages, this year has seen strong crops of rice and wheat. Plus, worldwide stockpiles of corn, soybeans and other crops are healthy.

    August 22, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Steve

    Ive worked in commercial kitchens my whole life. The amount of waste is staggering. There are times I want to cry seeing what gets wasted and how much. Most people are so clueless as to how much catering and eateries waste. My kitchen alone could probably feed a couple dozen families DAILY with what is wasted. I am sure larger kitchens waste even MORE.

    August 22, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • William

      The left overs in a larger restaurant is usually reused or fed to the people that work in the kitchen/restaurant. What comes back from the tables on the plates is usually enough to feed a couple of dogs with.

      August 22, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
  7. TheBob

    Bush destroyed America.

    August 22, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • ShiggityDiggity

      Bush was just a sock puppet for the corporatist facists. And yes, they destroyed America.

      August 23, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dino

    Retailers want the food to go bad on the customer and not on them. That way the customer thinks they got their money's worth at the time of purchase say on a family pack of strawberries but have to throw out the moldy half of it the next day. The retailer gets the money from the sale of would-be wasted food instead of having to throw it out and take a loss.
    So if the portion is too big, don't buy it. Hey retailer, if I wanted that much I would buy 2 smaller portions. So I won't buy any at all and off I go to the bulk section of the store.

    August 23, 2012 at 7:20 am | Report abuse |
    • tdmitchell

      Retailers do not want your food to go bad. Most packaged foods are designed to feed a family of four, the American standard.

      August 23, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Rehan Ahsan

    Thuyen and I have been working for the industry for over 20 years. We are more than sure that we waste more than 40%.

    August 23, 2012 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
  10. mgrgurich

    Romney wants to gut the safety net so the poor will dumpster dive and save the landfill space

    August 23, 2012 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  11. Jim

    Can't give it away, If people get sick they will sue the stores.

    August 23, 2012 at 10:03 am | Report abuse |
  12. lulubroz

    Several years ago we took a friend visiting from a somewhat poorer country to a buffet style restaurant. I asked him what he thought of the abundance in this country, not just food, but everything else, including the many disposables items we use and throw away without much of a thought – paper napkins, containers, plastic utensils. He said: "I think the United States laughs at the rest of the world". I've never forgotten it, and this brings it back to mind. Americans have no idea what it is like to value food like most people in other countries, who pay much more for it (when they can), do. I suspect we'll start learning that soon.

    August 23, 2012 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  13. robert

    All news stories these days are deliberately deceitful. The purpose is to enrage and confuse you. I have zero respect for the malicious gossips that masquerade as journalist these days.

    August 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. sean

    Haven't any of you guys gone dumpster diving at Dunken – Donuts in the middle of the night??? You haven't lived until you put that under your belt for the memories!!!

    August 23, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  15. tdmitchell

    Bush had nothing to do with the nation's wasteful tendencies or the marketing within grocery stores that "full shelves sell" - a strategy that has been used in the grocery industry since the 1950s.

    A batch of fresh chicken looks more appetizing to people in store. If the supply is scant, invariably, the next question someone asks is, "Is that fresh?" No one buys the last of anything either. They just don't. Americans are incredibly picky consumers with tons of "food hang ups" and we pay for their wastefulness.

    The food needs donated but the health regulations again deter much of that food from being distributed. The only vendors who never overstock their shelves are commercial bread vendors because they have to pay out of pocket for their "stale" when it is returned. They only get paid for a loaf when it goes through the register and the margin is small. Most other vendors fresh or stable overproduce to catch the eye of the consumer but adequate measures are not in place to distribute what is not sold. Management and employees alike would love to give that food away to local people in need. Years ago, there were no such regulations.

    I worked at a bakery when I was 18 years old and each night the local Catholic Church that ran a mission house would come and take our day old that could not be sold the next day. We counted everything up and gave the donation slip to the office manager. It was that easy to help out the local community. It should the same again. None of this would be wasted and the finicky shopper could still have their over filled display of foods to choose from, and more. To change this you would have to completely re-engineer grocery marketing strategies, change the way consumers think, and have a fail safe plan for shopping spikes when those displays can easily be wiped out in minutes, which is, inclement weather, football parties, and holidays etc.

    Easier donation regulations is key to eliminating the waste.

    August 23, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
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