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. Philip

    @Kate. Odd. I always fed my family first and then paid the bills. Well, except when younger on the farm. Then the farm animals got fed first. 🙂
    And none have said food is cheap. This news story shows that our food is about 40% more expensive than what we pay at the grocery store even.
    Think about it. 4% of our crude oil is used to make food we throw away. About 5% is used to make gasoline...10% is used to make jet fuel. See? We almost spend as much throwing away food as we buy gas for our cars! 1/2 of our airline ticket price pays for thrown-away food!.
    It don't get more expensive than that. (yet)

    August 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Chopper

    I like to eat food. I also like to waste food. I am an American glutten. I don't care about starving or poor people. I like my plate piled high so it looks bountiful. I can't eat it all though. So I throw away about half my plate. So what?

    August 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. rose


    August 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marvin McNutt

      LOL I can afford to be... so whatever

      August 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Rose, we also give more to this planet than anyone else, not to mention we prevent the world from slipping into total anarchy. You're welcome.

      August 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      @Marvin...I hope someday you find out just what it's like to go hungry and starve you pompous ass!

      August 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • spynnal

      Dear Joe. You can be both proud to be an American, and still accept that we waste precious resources.

      August 22, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Joe

    If you really want to see food wasted, take a cruise sometime. People stack plates to the ceiling, take one bite, and toss the rest. Shameful.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marvin McNutt

      Or maybe the food just sucked (like in most cases) or they didn't feel like eating it... You must be a poor overweight individual

      August 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Marvin, I hand out more in tips than you earn all year.

      August 22, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • oldwoman

      It's so nice to see the little boys here, comparing the size of their.....whatever.

      August 22, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |

    get drunk, start fights and smell bad

    works 4 me

    August 22, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  6. rrk

    Most of the times in restaurant, I have never seen American Family share their dishes. Each order their own dish , even if its the same and throw the half. While I have seen Asian families share the dishes. They buy 3 for four and share and empty the plate.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Crude Oil

    Crude oil is refined into many products. Plastic, pharmaceuticals, diesel fuel, gasoline, etc.
    About 5% of our crude oil is refined into gasoline for our automobiles.
    About 4% of our crude is refined and used in various ways to produce the food we throw away.
    We pump just about as much food in the trash as we do gas in our cars.
    Food is very very expensive.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kate

    Everything is just too expensive these days.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Al

    Food being wasted is not a problem. The fact that there are still millions of people without food is the problem.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ted

    In other words, American's can't afford Food so 40% is thrown out at the end of the day.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mark

    Well heck, the solution is for the government to pass a statute requiring that each of us eat all the food that we buy (including restaurant owners). Voila, no waste. Then, we just adjust our bathroom scales to go up to 1,000 pounds. Problem again well solved by government action!

    August 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  12. RinosRwinos

    This really is a crime. We as a nation waste far too much food. I try not to waste food and buy only what I need. If Americans realised they were throwing away money they would think differently about what goes in the trash. I monitor what I am throwing away since that is money ending up in the trash. If you look at it the proper way the less you throw out the less you have to drag to the garbage can and from the grocery store.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. MisterTim

    No doubt there is wastage, but 40% sounds way high. I'd like to see the NRDC data set. I've previously thought that the NRDC was biased in their analysis - so it could be again here.

    My community has at least one large food pantry that takes in excess food - mostly from grocery stores but also from restaurants. I volunteer there periodically. I am always impressed with the volume of food that they handle.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Blob

    And if you are significantly obese, that is more food that is wasted that is not in the 40%. That probably means 60% or more is wasted on overindulgence and tossing out uneaten food. There are two ways to fix this. QUIT OVEREATING!

    August 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. West Nile Virus

    Tops 1,118 including 41 deaths. largest outbreak ever seen since the disease was first detected in the United States in 1999.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
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