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. realdraken

    After being astounded by the grotesquely oversized portions served in US restaurants when visiting from Europe last year, I'm not surprised by this article.

    August 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Karsim

    I guess the wasted food crosses our minds from time to time when visiting supermarkets, but no matter what, the 40% number is nothing but mind blowing...

    August 30, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Anonymous

    I don't waste ANY food. I'm ashamed of all of you!

    August 30, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Charles

    I raise a few chickens. They are omnivors and they love bugs. But on top of that they eat all the scraps we would normaly throw away. Meat scraps go to the dogs, everything else go to the chickens. And on top of that I have nice fresh eggs all the time.

    August 30, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
  5. christina

    This info kills me ! I wish that we could give it AWAY to the less Fortunate!!!!!!! And stop being so GREEDY !

    August 30, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
  6. super man

    I totally agree with standardized expiration/use by dates. I throw food out if it's after the sell by date because I don't know when the "use by" date should be.......and lets not even talk about milk. I don't think I have ever had a jug of milk that wasn't sour days before the jug date.

    August 31, 2012 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
  7. sim namore

    Children starve in this land of abundance. We have no shame.

    August 31, 2012 at 10:07 am | Report abuse |
  8. john

    our ancestors conquered america and now we think we can conquer nature. If we as a country or culture truly appreciated nature or God for that matter if you prefer we would all realize that food is not a "product" like everything else we "make" or "buy" is-it is a gift from nature or as I said God if you prefer and it is the GIFT of life. Without food we have no life and without nutricous food we have no good life. The government who fiddles with our food system so we can have cheap milk and meat now has been bought out and corrupted by the very food "system" they created. Now the government is the strongarm of the biotech and agricultural food business. If you shop in a supermarket like I do and like most do you are nothing more than a SLAVE to the companies that "create" food. We have all been brainwashed and corrupted by our laziness to accept lies as facts. Good food,a good country,and good health does not come from going against nature but by abiding by and being thankful for what we have-america which was conquered by our ancestors has been conquered by our own greed and lack of morality (morality is not a belief in God but an understanding of what is natural and right and good). We have all become the slaves of our own worst instincts and features and we are manipulated by those who profit greatly (in money,not in knowledge) from our slavery to our govt and the corporations and companies that run america. The way to save ourselves is the way to save our children and america. We need to slowly or quickly however we wish appreciate the gift of life and freedom and we need to get our food from our local farms and from neighbors-because food is perishable just like life itself we need to understand that as long as we support the food industry for most or all of our fod needs the waste of our country and our people will continue until every food is DEAD but not as easily perishable and we will all be poisined to death and suffering and disease when all our main food groups are genetically modified to produce or withstand pesticides to keep them "alive" but in reality to kill their life and kill us slowly in the process as well. life is not the ability not to perish because no man or no thing can live forever and not perish. Life is the ability and the freedom to live and to exist as we are not as others and even ourselves might like to pretend we are. As long as we have massive food processing we will have massive food waste because when a company "buys" and "produces" food that is a waste of energy and a waste of resources (food is our most abundant and important resource) and then that food is "owned" by the corporation who wants to turn it into MONEY instead of abundance so they CONTROL it's distribution and it's "price". Because companies who think they OWN the earth think they have the right to control the earth and control us and even whether we live or starve to death from lack of food or from malnutrition by eating their "products" we will not curn wasted food and lives in america until we move away from those who offer us gofts of their creation laced with poisin ideas and poisined nature. We are slaves to everything we shouldn't be and we respect nothing we should such as our own ability to think and be good,do good,become good,and be truly happy and blessed beings (blessed by nature or God if you like). We can only be good and do good if we first appreciate what is good and it is not US or are govt or corporations EVEN though these are all necessities and all these things can do good and be good-but not until we are first as individuals good and wise from our experience.

    August 31, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Yeshiembet

    If so much food waste in the United States and so many hungry people around the world? Why not appeal to the concerned and fight a good fight together to eradicate poverty at least save the children dying or living on garbage to survive. They too are part of the world.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Dr.A.A.Qureshi

    It is really a crime against the humanity to waste billion of metric tons of food while million of people in Africa are dying due to hunger.. Thousands are children are dying because of poor nutrition and do not reach 5 years of age as Death is just engulfing these innocent babies. Developed countries are to be blamed for this neglect. but we should all save every piece of grain for the hungry people.

    October 2, 2012 at 6:04 am | Report abuse |
  11. Matt

    I'm currently working as a food distributor (fancy phrase for vendor). I hear from store managers all the time as to why I don't bring in a lot. I do have a conscience to speak out and say "I'm always thinking about food waste and the poor people who are dying of starvation around the world." I try not to think in terms of business, but the means of the physical reality that meet the needs of the people, not business, PEOPLE. I tell store managers "I'm cutting back on orders to reduce food waste, and YOU"RE NOT HELPING AT ALL!"

    October 4, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Rosalind

    Keep on working, great job!Castle Season 5 Episode 6

    November 7, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. kelly

    The day i have born. my parents teached me not to waste anything. So i have never did this. Buy septic tank system, UV filtration and Drainage products at reasonable price

    November 12, 2012 at 5:12 am | Report abuse |
  14. Nurul|Happy Tiffin

    I was pretty pleased to discover this great site for Food. I wanted to thank you for ones time due to this wonderful read!! I definitely liked every bit of it and I have you saved to fav to see new information in your web site.

    March 25, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Ellie


    April 30, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
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