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. Grey

    Unlikely, unless you of course count the calories that we over eat, and then of course the percent would be more like 75% instead of 40%.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  2. AshesToDust

    Humans need to consume less, causing stores to stock less, causing less waste. The supermarkets are to blame as well, along with the producers who are producing too much and wasting too many resources and they are still compensated by the government for their output. Farmers should be compensated less, forcing them to produce less, causing stores to stock less, and hopefully forcing people to buy less. It all sounds great in concept, but it can never be. Humans are wasteful, especially Americans. In supermarkets, how many products just sit on the shelves, and then need to be thrown away. I see so many items near their sell by dates, filling up shelves.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Unit34AHunter

    "It cites several reasons, including that food has been so cheap and plentiful in the United States that **Americans don't value it properly.**"

    I think I smell a leftist, citizen-of-the-world wealth-transfer proposal in our future.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Now Why

      You Betcha

      August 22, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  4. BJ

    you sound crazy......you probably are....

    August 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karl

      Much of the food we consume today is contaminated by vitamins, minerals, and other harmful nutrients. Until these things are completely removed from our foodstuff, we will continue to be an unhealthy nation. For this reason I consume mostly twinkies and packaged cup cakes.

      August 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      I'm laughing my head off at this comment...well done!

      August 22, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • wut

      makes no sense at all

      August 22, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • dasea

      that's a funny take on the health crisis.

      August 22, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • RF Burns


      August 22, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • MMR

      You win the internets!

      August 24, 2012 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • alumette

      Vitamins and minerals are good. I think you are confusing it with steroids and anti-biotics in meat which was given to cows; then there are pesticides etc...on vegetables and fruits, unless you buy organic. .....you end up with unwanted pharmaceuticals in your body.

      August 29, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Meh


      August 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  5. chrissy

    Also if anyone has ever shopped at a low end grocery store and paid close attention, many canned goods and boxed foods are WELL PAST their expiration date. Some as much as yrs! Most of this problem is stockpiling by manufactures and sales!

    August 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cherries

      There's so much preservatives in them, they last years!

      August 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  6. barbara

    A good report, but very little in the way of concrete suggestions of how not to waste. It seems clear that the problem needs to be addressed on all levels.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  7. iceload9

    Another silly report with outrageously inflated numbers. There may be waste in the system but the cost to prevent it would outway the benefits. This isn't a study, it's a biased opinion at best. Otherwise, create a firm show how savings can be obtained and cash in on the 165 billion. Remember, a billion here a billion there pretty soon your talking about real money. Thanks to Everett Dirkson.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. john

    Using the math in this article, a family of four would waste 80 lbs. of food each month. At the article's stated cost of $1,350 to $2,275 that amounts to somewhere between $16.87 and $28.43 PER POUND of food. That is several times the cost of prime steak where I live.

    Now that the numbers in the article are shown to be just plain sensationalistic garbage, no point in paying attention to anything else the writer bothered with. Who edits this stuff?

    August 22, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • clc

      John, you are right. The actual report states $1365-$2275 in waste ANNUALLY for a family of four, which is like $115-$190 per month. Still sounds a little high, but more realistic. Poor editing.

      August 22, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mallory Simon, CNN News blog editor

      Thanks for noticing this. I've just went back into the report to double check and we have corrected the error.

      August 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Kevin Nivek

    What's truly horrible about this is that there are adults and children going to bed hungry every night. We're supposed to be a civilized country – why can't we set up a channel that funnels this leftover food to local organizations that can distribute it to the needy??

    August 22, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  10. skinsrock

    Maybe they should lower their prices & reduce the amount of their product they serve... Restaurants are ridiculous with their portions & a lot of food gets thrown away.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. cmdf

    Many large grocery chains do donate food right before expiration to their local food bank. Food Banks distribute this food out to all of the smaller agencies that cannot store the food. Millions of pounds are used this way. If all chains did this and if farmers donated less "pretty" but still nutritious produce we could help solve the problem of so much food yet people are still hungry in this country.

    August 22, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Me

    I know the local Dunkin Donuts throws out all there donuts at the end of the day because they can't donate them. They used to donate to the local homeless shelters until someone threatened to sue when they got sick(which was nonsense.).

    August 22, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Or they could donate them to the local precinct.

      August 22, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rich

    I waste more than that, the crap sold in the Arizona grocery stores is old and not fit to eat. I purchased bagged french green beans paying $4.99. When I prepared them yesterday they were moldy. produce that is sold has been in storage and is old, tough skinned and dry out inside.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  14. gdaym8

    Coming Soon: Heavy fines (tax) for NOT clearing your plate. "Eat all your peas, Billy!"

    August 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  15. m

    I don't waste much, but I go to the store about 2-3 times a week.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
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