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. Cindy

    That the USA way!!!

    August 24, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Lilyq

    "Food represents a small portion of most Americans budget". Two problems with that statement. First, I don't know at whose table the gatherer of these statistics eats but at our house, family of four, it is 800+ per month for groceries and that is a chunk of change. Secondly, what about all those articles stating how poor everyone is and can't afford to buy real food? Which is it?

    August 24, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Marc

    I think this has more to do with pricing in stores and restaurants then throwing out food at home. With the bad economy I don't know anyone that throws away food because they let it go bad in their fridge or freezer. I do see most people avoid most meats over 3.99 a pound etc unless it's on a really good sale though. Same with dairy being expensive etc. If it's too expensive people simply aren't going to buy it. 5.99-17.99 for steak, people are out of their minds thinking even the select cuts will sell for that. Even the scraps people used to practically give away are selling for premium prices.

    August 24, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. somethings

    I'm a recent college grad looking for a good-paying job (funny, I know). Anyhow, I don't waste ANY food I buy, because I can't bring myself to throw away what I rightfully paid for with the limited money I have. I know not everyone (or very few for that matter) can do this, but I go to the store every three to five days and buy groceries instead of stockpiling once a month so that the items I buy don't go bad before I consume them.

    August 24, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. John G. Ault

    This is really easy. Scientists know exactly how many calories people need. The government should issue a calorie allowance to each person and they should be allowed to exercise that calorie pucrhase each week. People will buy only what they need like that and not waste anything. This could be controlled electronically and would end up reducing pur damage to the environment and thw wastage.

    August 24, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Maggie Nutter

      I truely hope that is sarcasm. I can't image what that system would cost. Then what ? Blackmarket calorie trading so I can have a smore on a summers night with my grandkids or an piece of birthday cake?? Maybe we should have a video at every resturant and kitchen table so that we can be sure each person is consuming only his/or her calories and not eating poor grampa's food as he dozes in his wheelchair. I just don't even see this as a possible reality.

      August 25, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
  6. Ernie B

    You have to balance waste with health. We are fortunate as a society to have an abundance of food that we can dump questionable food. Nothing wrong with that. We are a free people in a free society. I see comments like "the government should...." , Good grief! Now those baby carrots in my crisper look a little shriveled, time to toss it out.

    August 24, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
  7. JB

    I can't tell you how angry this article made me. I grew up in Eastern Europe during the Communist days. It was a fight for survival, to find any kind of food. Just the rumor of meat being brought to the butcher's was drawing hundreds of people ready to "stand in line" more like an organized riot, where some people were just trampled to death by the crowd for 2 kg of fatty meat. And here you are in the mighty US of A, the best country in the world, you say, and you shamelessly throw away 40% of your food while people on the street are starving. Have you no fear of the wrath of God? Health standards my ass. Practice civil disobedience and feed the poor, for when they are fed, there is peace throughout the land, but when the parents don't have money to feed their children, they go crazy and start a revolution, and that is the last thing you want on your hands, rich people. Look what happened to Ceausescu, it can happen to you too, and there will be no salvation, no saving grace. SO I tell it to you to be wise and live, rather than be foolish and die a painful death.

    August 24, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dad o' teenagers

    Average family wastes 25%. I don't think so. With 2 teenage sons, almost nothing goes to waste in our house. And a minor part of the budget, feeding growing kids? My take is the stats on waste are grossly overstated to make the stats on the environmental impact significant enought to get folks attention. I am also trying to figure out how resturaunts with huge wasted cost of food can stay in business. I worked my way through grad school waiting tables and those managers were VERY GOOD at forecasting food demand on a nightly basis. So I think this study makes some gross over estimates to make the outcomes acceptably bad. Should we waste less, absolutely. Should we accept this study as factual, absolutely not.

    August 26, 2012 at 9:04 am | Report abuse |
    • ThePoster

      Dad o' teenagers
      No. You are one person with one small observation. This is a study of the entire system. I know its difficult to think on a larger scale, but to denounce a large study like this simply because of your one personal experience tells me you don't understand.

      August 27, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Oakspar

      ThePoster was somewhat correct, if rude.

      Most of the waste is not occuring in the home. Have you ever wondered why all eggs are Grade A or why your homegrown tomatoes look like freaks compared to the uniform perfection of the stores?

      The subpar produce, eggs, and the like are not sold to the public (despite being edible). Rather, they are processed into juices, baked goods, sauces, and the like. Where there is not enough secondary market for the less than perfect produce, it is discarded.

      The stores also toss anything that looks off, because people will not buy it, along with milk, bread, meat, cheese, and other items that do not sell in a timely fashion.

      Restraunts have food left on the plate, bad plates of food returned or discarded, things that date or spoil, and trimmings and scrap (which this study is likely counting).

      Cafaterias often put food on the child's plate do to nutrition requirements that the child is highly unlikely to eat (I likely threw away 100 pounds or more of green beans back in elementary school).

      So, while you are likely doing your part – this is a commentary on the entire system.

      Also, when you buy a Thanksgiving turkey, what do you do with the bag of liver, gizzard, and neck?

      August 28, 2012 at 11:58 am | Report abuse |
  9. ThePoster

    A lot of food gets thrown out not by checking its actual freshness, but based on what the consumer will buy based on appearance, and an often early arbitrary expiration date. That date can be a good week early, giving the actual food a longer shelf life, but it is often thrown out a week before the actual early date based on slight wilting, or even a bruise. Why? Because consumers want new and pretty. Even with their food.

    August 27, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bruce B.

    I'm glad there's this much waste, because without it Americans would be even fatter than they are now!

    August 28, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Al Sanchez

      You sound like you really have a great plan - more waste so that we don't get fatter?!?!? Geesh! Go back to sleep!

      August 28, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • lifesabeachobx

      Exactly. As is....the USA is the #1 Obese Country in the World.

      August 28, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jenna D.

      True, yet we still have so many hungry children in this country. It would be nice if some of what is wasted because it isn't "perfect" could be repurposed to feed those in need...

      August 28, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
  11. tascman

    Now rotting food is causing global warming? Sigh... Lets not forget forests, and rotting dieing trees etc...
    I know our food budget is higher than all other items in my family, and climbing out of control. Our economy runs on oil...
    Maybe more chemicals and engineered foodstuffs so that not even self respecting microbes won't eat it? Surely that must have some affect on food availability relative to earlier days...
    I do agree that culturally food has become entertainment, and there is much waste in the food industries.
    But we must ask why. As we degrade humanity to a hedonistic race, why would we expect less?
    We must turn from pleasure, but that is pumped on every channel, every classroom, every venue. We have been led from caring and thrifty individuals to to gluttony in all its forms. It was not always this way, we have become corporate fodder for the most part.

    Only if man returns to the God breathed crown of His creation can we assume our place, and then there will be no waste and all our efforts will be for others.

    August 28, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • rrsales

      They do not think the Global Citizens are capable of making good choices. So they the Global One World Government will make choices for us. All we have to be is a good slave and we will not be endangered. The Word of God is coming to pass but most are so blind they cannot even see it.

      August 28, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joey

      to tascman, I think what they were referring to is that food contributes to global warming because of how much energy is used to produce it, and thus all the excess CO2 emitted in the production process, not really the rotting food itself. I agree with you wholeheartedly though that we need to be a lot less hedonistic, and embrace some good old christian values and live for others and not our own pleasure!

      August 29, 2012 at 2:50 am | Report abuse |
    • The Woof

      Agree. Years ago a congressional committee reviewed the same situation of wasted food so they went out to super market dumpsters and retrieved all the canned goods that were thrown out. They used those same food items to prepare a buffet and served it to fellow congressmen. No one got sick as canned food can have a shelf life of at least 5 years. Items served were peaches, shrimp, cabbage, caviar, salmon. This food could be given to homeless shelters and the like but stores will remove the labels prior to tossing these items and even go to the steps of having people arrested for removing them from their trash bin to discourage this. We say that we are the most powerful country on the planet but what good is all that power if there are people starving in it.? There is coming a time when all of this will be resolved and it won't be mankind doing it.

      August 29, 2012 at 10:10 am | Report abuse |
  12. ag

    Rather than throwing food in the trash, get a worm composter! I have one right in my kitchen, and it doesn't smell at all if you maintain it properly (drain the liquid once a week or so and don't overfeed). Of course, you can't put meat products in it, but any veggie scraps, stale bread or the wrinkly apple you forgot about in the fridge for 6 months will make your worms very happy. They will even eat your junk mail!

    August 28, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  13. John

    We need to change the growing patterns to meet the consumption patterns, and reduce the in between processes. This is one for a brilliant entreprenuer to solve. The results are far reaching and will benefit many. Especially those who go to bed hungry, and those who do not have proper nutrution.

    August 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  14. AP

    That is so true. I always wondered where the stocked up items go each time I visit a huge grocery store, as not everything is going to be sold out. And even if it is, people in the US do buy more than what is required. Americans should ponder more on the fact that there are so many countries out there that are not so privileged to have food to eat and they are lucky enough to have enough. If at least some of the people in this country understand this, they will not waste food.

    August 28, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  15. E

    These places need to coordinate with animal shelters or local farms to donate the unused food. Items that can't be donated for human consumption are still completely usable for animals. There is no reason that any of this should go to waste.

    August 28, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
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