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. Tell The Truth

    This article IS such a lie. You are blaming families and not these overpriced stores and Restaurants who waste food. Wow!! You are so backwards. Stop going to these high class neighborhoods to get your research. I struggle to put food on my table each week. And can't qualify for State assistance to spend on Candy, Chips and Soda. Nor am I a farmer who can build mansion on my land from all of the Government handouts I receive. But can't put in an irrigation system. Then complain about a drought and want insurance payouts on top of the free cash handouts. Give me a break! So that the price of food increases and never goes down for cash strapped households. All these articles are a joke. Please stop posting lies.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mallory Simon, CNN News blog editor

      I think what the study is trying to show is how from farm to table to restaurants to households that there are little bits among the way that lead to this total. I know many others here who struggle to put food on their table. What do you think we can do as a country to help out more if we have such a large amount of wasted food?

      August 22, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim (not to be confused with Jim)

      I don't know. Sounds accurate to me. But when things are cheap that is what happens.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Read the article

      I applaud the fact that you don't have wasteful habits, but 2/3 of the article discusses the problems with restaurant portions and overstocking in grocery stores. And the fact that you don't waste food doesn't mean that many others don't – I live in a metropolitan area where many households make exactly the choices described above. They buy too much, or throw it out if they decide to eat out. I'm guilty of this on occasion. Highlighting the problem will encourage all of us to be more thoughtful in how we eat.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bradys

      Please don't insinuate that all farmers live high on the hog on government subsidies. We farm in Virginia and receive no assistance from anyone and grow mainly crops that are uninsurable. We also work with groups like Society of St. Andrews to gleen our fields and take unmarketable yet edible produce to those who are less fortunate. I agree with your comments about candy and pop on food stamps, but don't lump all farmers in with the greedy corporate agri-business like Archer-Daniels etc.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimbob

      I am a farmer. If I want to double my money, I put up a second mailbox!

      August 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      You are an example of someone completely unable to see beyond your own nose and labels as lies facts that don't match your myopic world view.

      August 22, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Beadlesaz

      Bob & Bradys – excellent replies. But, your efforts are wasted replying to someone who is so irrational.

      August 31, 2012 at 1:26 am | Report abuse |
  2. timmaahhyy

    the only thing that will stop food waste in this country would be a food shortage. If that happens Diabetty will drop those pounds in a hurry. few more years of drought and we might just get there.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • WHAT

      drought causes small farms to lose money or maybe even go under. you seriously think that drought will fix our problem. how about you ask all the town that have to have restricted water.. what do you think about that timmaahhyy?

      August 23, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Cherries

    This was almost the best thing about raising hogs. They eat anything. Rotten tomatoes, chicken bones, coconuts, and freezer burnt meat. Nothing went to waste at our house, and our trash was never stinky.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ted

      And that is why you got trichinosis and have major brain damage.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cherries

      Along with regular grain and table scraps, they are given a dewormer mix. The quality of home grown pork is amazing and we are looking forward to raising another batch soon.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
  4. clc

    $1350 to $2275 per month in waste for a family of four?!? Considering that most families of four do not even spend that much on all of their food for a month, I doubt the figure is correct. This must contain some estimate of opportunity cost or indirect environmental costs. Think about it: $16,200 to $27,300 worht of food is wasted per year by a family of four. In 2006, the real median household income was only a tad above $50,000 per year, before taxes. Also, if each person wasted about 20 pounds of food per month, that would be 80 pounds for a family of four. Unless that entire wastage comprises of lobster or Kobe beef, you would not be able to reach these amounts. Bad journalism on this one. I agree with the issues of unsecured food supplies, water pollution, and general waste, but this type of made-up data does not help any of the causes.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • clc

      CNN, I read your articles all of the time, but get some copy editors. I just read the NRDC report and the waste for a family of four is $1365-$2275 PER YEAR, not per month. Poor editing of an important subject. This makes the article look less legit. Not everyone will read the source material, as is evident by your mistake. Please correct it. Thank you.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • clc

      CNN, please post that you have now fixed the mistake and changed the article, which I notice you have now done.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mallory Simon, CNN News blog editor

      Thanks CLC for seeing the error. We've fixed it. 20 pounds a food a month is still a lot though. Any ideas on what we might be able to do as consumers to further reduce the figure?

      August 22, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • clc

      Mallory, I think we need to redistribute farm subsidies to smaller farms and ask larger farms to diversify crops if they want subsidies. We should also have better food policies that can be enforced. Not necessarily more laws, just different ones. For example, seed lines should not be able to be patented, and this is coming from a capitalist. It was a wrong decision by the courts to say that genetic material can have a patent.

      I have also seen first hand how public benefits allow for purchasing soda, chips, lobster and other non-essentials. The WIC program in Wisconsin is great, as it limits the types of food to nutritious ones. This reduces cost as well. I would propose that the "food stamp" (it's not called that anymore) program is changed to keep the current benefits with a restriction to being able to purchase only limited items that are staples (100% juice, grains, vegetables, selected meats, etc). It's a big problem and these would only chip away at it. But it is a start. Thank you.

      August 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  5. REGinAZ

    It points to a real problem and a real shame, especially considering those starving. It is disgusting to think so much is wasted before it even gets to the consumer's home and then there seems significant need for the consumer to be re-educated on handling and consumption, changing habits up and down the line to address the problem and better utilize the resource.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  6. LarryB

    I hope that was meant as sarcasm. If not, I'll gladly vote against your phony idea of what God is.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Davehuckle

    By looking at the many, many million of severely obese people in the USA you wouldn't think that 40% of food is being thrown away. I would bet that the obese do throw away any food. They just go back for 2nds & 3rds, then just 1 more, then finish the food off.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  8. us_1776

    Nobody can plan such that they consume 100% of food.

    It's not possible. Too many variables.


    August 22, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • All you can blog

      That's probably true but I think it is important that we strive for 100%. I would say I always use >95% of what I buy often 100%. Of course the pre-consumer waste is not easy for me deal with.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. LarryB

    Why do restaurants serve such huge portions, anyway? ALL of them seem to do it. It's completely unnecessary to satisfy most customers, and incredibly wasteful besides.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Ben

    The real problem is ignorance of the extent of this challenge. I wish there was a way to put this write-up on every dinner table of every family in our country with the requirement that it be read before one can eat again.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
  11. MashaSobaka

    I would like to officially request that anyone who does not eat ALL of the food that they buy be banned from whining about the economy. I know that there are people who are careful with their money and only buy what they will actually eat – I'm one of those people myself – but these numbers show that those responsible people are very much in the minority. Let's drop the rest of you in a famine-stricken region where the food you waste could have gone to good use and THEN let's hear you whine about "the times being hard."

    August 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mark

    I don't like the idea of food being thrown out in restaurants, homes, etc, but what's alternative? You can't keep it around; it goes bad and there's not room for it besides. Businesses HAVE to play it conservative and buy more food than they need, because if they run short or portions fail to satisfy, customers will take their business elsewhere. I'd agree with giving leftover food to the needy, but what happens when someone gets sick and sues? You KNOW it'll happen. As for crops not being harvested, that sounds fishy. Why would farmers spend money to plant crops if they aren't going to get their money back through selling it? I smell the heavy hand of government SUBSIDY. End the subsidy, and the problem goes away. This whole issue is nothing more than the fact that people, from farmers to consumers, plan imperfectly because we are human. Nothing to be done about that.
    Also, it's GREAT that food is cheap, even if it means waste. WAY better than the alternative.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Wellington, Duke of Potatobrooke

    If there is so much food, why is it so expensive. Usually I'm lucky to afford a peanut butter and banana sandwich.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • pointless1

      Education is expensive for sure but how much is ignorance costing you then if you can't afford peanut butter and a banana? Natural Selection in the works...

      August 22, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wellington, Duke of Potatobrooke

      I'm an important British aristocrat. Having a castle and servants cost money, ya know.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bemused

    I've actually long wondered whatever happens to all that food in the supermarket that doesn't get bought. Some of it makes its way to dollar stores, some to charitable donations... but certainly not all of it. WHat happens to all that unsold food?

    August 22, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • pointless1

      File 13... all that can be done..

      August 22, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. curious

    Most Americans are overweight. They did not get that way throwing away food.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
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