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. erin andrews perky breasts

    pretty sickening.

    August 24, 2012 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
  2. Mt. Olive Lutheran School

    We should give away the extra food to the homeless in our area. People can do that as a family, as a school, or as a store or restaurant. Find volunteers to deliver food items to food pantries. Educate people to purchase less.

    August 24, 2012 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      Great sentiment, but also a horribly oversimplified analysis that actually detracts from finding a true solution. Restaurants/Supermarkets/Schools do not throw away perfectly good food. They wait until it is no longer fresh enough to be served and then they dispose of it.

      August 24, 2012 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
  3. saddened

    Food Network had a great show on this a short while back called the "Great Waste".

    August 24, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  4. Diana

    II used to work in the Restaurant Industry and I witnessed first hand the horrible waste. Big portions that generated lots of leftovers, Buffet lines with trays of food going to the trash at the end of the day. It was sickening. Waste is inevitable, but why not minimize it? I think business owners and managers should revisit the Waste management training course and we, as consumers should "chew as much we can swallow".

    August 24, 2012 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  5. History Bear

    We do waste food. We try to cook only enough for a meal because we don't like left overs. I know many think we should use all the surplus to feed the poor and the world. Our poor fine. The world, only when they quit breeding like rabbits and learn to help themselves. We as a country buy a great deal of food from other countries. Let's cut down and listen to them cry about restraint of trade and how times are tough for them. We produce it, we have the say in how it's used. It's up to each individual to make smarter choices. And talk about waste– Been on a cruise ship lately?

    August 24, 2012 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  6. onestarman

    I thought it was Especially sad a few years ago when the Major Food chains started DESTROYING the Thrown Out food so the POOR would not be seen Rummaging through the TRASH for FOOD.

    August 24, 2012 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  7. Tom

    .................Americans don't value it properly...............

    Wrong. Value is exactly what it is, at the time of the transaction. Value is an agreement beteween parties. This article is biased, and is using guilt to influence behvior in order to support an agenda. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Go to Canada. Or the Northeastern US.

    August 24, 2012 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
    • onestarman

      If you truly believe that the ONLY Value anything has is the amount of MONEY you can make from a Transaction – Then THAT is why Our SPECIES will Cease to EXIST on this Planet.

      August 24, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
  8. mrlogistics

    If prices were to go up, America would not be so inclined to buy more than they can eat. It is in there culture to buy more than they can consume. Cheap food is why people are so obese and why there is so much waste. Time to hike up the prices.

    August 24, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Ben

      The price would go up if the government didn't subsidize it so heavily.

      August 24, 2012 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
    • zandhcats

      Exactly,even I consider myself is a frugal person,I buy food more than I need. The food stores(dry food)in my house can feed me 3 months. I just can't resist not to buy because food is on sale all the time, but I also save some for donations.

      August 24, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marek

      If approximatly 40 million people are on some state/federal assistance hiking up food prices will only put more load on taxpayers. Is this your goal?

      August 24, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Unodos

      I think the article indicates a large part of the waste is before it even makes it to your home.

      August 24, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • mhmz

      I remember when we were suppose to send this all to the starving Chinese.

      August 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  9. gina b

    let someone go hungry for awhile, and they'll learn not to waste food. People have to be taught to respect food.They sure will, with an empty belly. With our Bread Basket in drought, we'll see a few million americans wake up.

    August 24, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Mike Drake

    There are two key ways I can think of to end or curb waste at the supermarket level – end oppressive health code restrictions on what can be done with food that's past a "sell by" date, and implement a system where the sell-by date is electronically linked to the item's price (maybe thru the barcode, though it would be tricky).
    How many people are currently going hungry who could benefit if, instead of going into the dumpster at the end of the day, the supermarket's leftover rotisserie chickens were thrown into a freezer and then handed off to a charity? Regulations could be finnessed such that stores would not be under threat of legal liability in these cases, and could optionally reap tax benefits for donated goods which would otherwise have just gone to waste. Why not?
    And if items started being electronically linked to their expiration dates, stores could figure out a pricing structure whereby items drop in price exponentially in their last days on the shelf – and consumers who are bargain-conscious and realize that an item at its "sell-by" date is not actually bad at all, will actually hunt down any such items and therefore keep stores from needing to waste nearly as much. And people who want the *newest possible* jug of milk will be able to pay a very small premium for it. Win-win, no?

    August 24, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marek

      100% agree

      August 24, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  11. queenbutterfly

    And there came to pass a time where there was no food. Nothing of fur or feather of scale or shell for it had all be eradicated by new developments. Nor the land or the sea held any living creature for contamination had poisoned all that lived. All that had been green plantlife was cleared away leaving new houses in their wake so there was no grazing place, or forest or jungle and all the animals perished. Insects also had been sprayed into oblivion so even the plentiful roach became extinct. Flies had no carrion or rot and thusly all died. dogs and cats, killed by the millions were only a memory and furred and feathered creatures crushed by highway tires nourised the pavement only. for want of protein humans turned to the only plentiful thing that was abundant for nourishment: themselves.

    August 24, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Marek

    While food waste is on every level and hardly can be controlled on haushold level, the tossing out good quality food by big retailers to keep prices high is really a problem, which should be addressed.

    August 24, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike Drake

      it has nothing to do with "keeping prices high" – it has everything to do with liability and expiration dates. the retailers are not the ones who set the expiration dates, nor the rules as to what can be done with food that's out-of-date.

      August 24, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Penny

    The claim that "Food represents a small portion of many Americans' budgets" has become less true than ever, still this is an appalling situation. If anything this article is an understatement. Eating out at restaurants that serve heaping plateloads of food has become a kind of sport. Ours is a nation of waste. We should be concerned for how we are creating a system of 'feast or famine,' all or nothing, a zero sum game where the small sustainable farmer is pushed out of the market.

    I agree with Gina b - if people knew what it's like to go hungry for extended periods they would see things far differently. I do, having lived through a youth of relying only on school lunches, coming home to a house with absolutely nothing to eat and waiting all night for our dad to show up with p-nut butter & jelly & a loaf of bread.

    While I am a tremendous supporter of farmers I nonetheless feel it's time to reduce subsidies or at least do some serious restructuring, especially with corn subsidies which largely support the big business.

    August 24, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Cynthia

    Clearly, we do not need to be mass producing by genetic alteration and importing the amount of food that we do in this country. We are major polluters.We need to stop buying so much. We need to respect the aina, this beautiful living planet we share life with. We need to look at what we are doing and teaching and do it differently. We need to wake up.

    August 24, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. oioiman

    Not only are Americans incredibly overweight and unhealthy, but they also are porcine-like wasters of vital resources, including food, water, and energy. A doomed empire slouches towards its just rewards, spewing wobegone tales of 'American exceptionalism' that have been turned on their collective critically unthinking heads. Greed doesn't clarify............greed KILLS.

    August 24, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
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