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. tez07

    The U.S. also subsidizes its farmers more than most industrialized nations. Cheaper food, while it helps the poor and indigent, also induces more waste as it becomes a smaller percentage of the average American households budget. Everything is a balance, just like the societal benefits and costs of cheap food.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Selfish IsADisease

      America is divided into 3 groups:-
      [1] People who don't appreciate when enough is enough , but buy anyway then toss what's left
      [2] Poor and needy who have to rely on food stamps
      [3] Obses people who think only of themselves and what they want – and fiddle to the rest!

      What a disgrace for a civilized country. No wonder you're economy is imploding – you do the same with your money as you do with your food!

      August 22, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • bill davis

      Never seen a skinny poor person on welfare in my life...

      August 22, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • All you can blog

      @bill – what size is your sample?

      August 22, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
  2. chrissy

    My personal method is to NOT buy many processed foods, less additives, healthier and just plain tastes better. I make all my own soups in bulk and freeze in portioned containers. Same with bread, i still bake my own and freeze. Saves me time and money.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • dazzle ©

      @chrissy, hi there girl. You are a wise woman and a good cook. I still need your pot roast recipe. I used to bake my own bread but out here the water and yeast have problems. Now I go to a local bakery that has great prices and you can order in advance so its ready for you to pick up. Commercial bread is awful. Yuck.

      August 22, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Kate

    Amen. I'm tired of paying income tax on what I earn, then sales tax on what I spend. Plus property taxes, gasoline taxes, ad valorem taxes, etc. they eve place a special tax on cel phones so those that don't work can get their Obama phones. If we could keep the money we work for instead of the government stealing it through taxation we would be rich.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • MM

      I want to marry you.

      August 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      You'd be a happier person if you stopped watching Fox News and picked up a civics textbook. The government isn't stealing your money - it's the price you pay for living in a society that protects you (defense department), provides you with roads to drive on (gas tax), and education (property tax). You might wish to go live alone in the woods somewhere, but when you live in a society it is your responsibility to support that society. As for the Obama phone for people who don't work - no. There is a program to subsidize poor people's telephone access so they can contact emergency services, etc., but Obama didn't do it. It's a program from the 80's and dates from the Reagan administration, according to Snopes, a non-partisan site dedicated to squashing nasty rumors like this. See their answer at snopes.com.

      August 29, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Terence

    End farm welfare kings

    August 22, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  5. 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 3:00 pm | Report abuse |

    Israel promotes the wasting of food to further advance their influence in the middle east. Starving the arabs is big business for the war machines of the West.

    August 22, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • apostate

      get bent

      August 22, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bryce

    There is NOTHING AT ALL for the American consumer to ashamed of about this!! This "Waste" statistic is a good thing, it relfects our ability to pick and choose from the best to worst foods, and allows consumers to have large varieties of choices. It reflects the prosperity that capitalism has provided us the
    ability to drive the average spending of the consumer on food to less than %10 of our incomes. And I completely and totally reject the last paragraph that says "if we, (and the author means the Govt) were to reduce food waste by 15% it would feed 25 million Americans." That is a ignorant liberal fallacy that believes that production is fixed and those who have less, only have less because someone else is hogging up all the pie! Be proud of our ability to waste food, its an acheivement that most people in history never had the luxury of putting in an article and whining about.

    August 22, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • CD

      So you belive production is inifinite? Have you heard of the conservation of matter?

      August 22, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bryce

      Production is based on demand. In a free market, production will always meet the demands of the consumer. But I'll respond to what you think you have in your smug reply, got me pinned with. Yes as a matter of technicality, production is infinite in the sense that as long as there is always going to be an ever consumers to make it larger.

      August 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • All you can blog

      I see. Waste it because you can. At least you're consistent and did the same with your education.

      August 22, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Karl

    I likes them fried taters please. Mmmmmm

    August 22, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • kotchi

      Good answer Karl Childers MMM MMMMM

      August 22, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Taylor

    A big portion of that food waste comes from school lunches (a lot of those are free). Have seen it with my own eyes. The food (money) literally goes straight into the trash can.

    August 22, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Grace

    This is such a sad statistic with so many hungry in out country! How do we get the excess to the food banks?? http://feedingamerica.org/

    August 22, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Highly Motivated

    However, 90% of US food is garbage to begin with. The food processing industry should be ashamed of themselves, putting out their poisons. Suger, high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, sucralose, monosodium glutamate, wheat flower, white rice, white bread, man made chemicals, hot dogs, balogne, potato chips, ketchup, sugary drinks, etc. All of it is just garbage.

    August 22, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • kotchi

      Perhaps you should do a little research. Ketchup is much higher in antioxidants than tomatoes and therefore ...very good for you

      August 22, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Snacklefish

    Don't you know there's starving legitimate children out there?

    August 22, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. SSampson

    80% of our food is wasted – 40% into landfill and 40% into human over-fill – fat

    I'm not poining a finger here – I too need to get into shape – but we have become a country of fat, ignorant and violent feinds.... Time to grow up – Rome is falling....

    August 22, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  14. tez07

    If you want people to conserve their food, make it more expensive. People respond to incentives. If the price of food is higher, they will conserve more. When the price of oil shot up, sales of SUV's declined. People always respond to price. Of course the tradeoff is that it will hurt those with lower incomes, and no politician alive will advocate higher taxes on food.

    August 22, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  15. John H

    America is a sick society

    August 22, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
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