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. Do the math

    "more than 20 pounds of food is wasted each month... "

    If 20 pounds is 40% then their idea of a month's total food is translates to 50 pounds of total food monthly for one person That's only 25+ ounces per day. Right. And we're allegedly an obese nation – on 25 ounces of daily intake.

    What laughable numbers they deploy in their scare tactics.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • scifigal2k

      I believe the article says "more than 20 pounds of food is wasted each month for EACH of 311 million Americans." Try again to "do the math."

      August 22, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Engineer, adept at math

      While I'm not a biologist, you ignore (or can't see) the real issue of caloric intake that the roughly 1.5 lbs of food per person per day adds. And yes, unless you're legally blind, the country DOES have an obesity problem.

      August 22, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  2. davetharave

    This is why the rest of the world hates us.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • tez07

      and here I thought it might have something to do with our foreign policy and habit of invading countries

      August 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Well, most of that food is produced here in US. So if we make food, isn't that up to us to decide what to do with it (eat it, toss it, donate it, etc.)? I don't support food waste but don't see a point why the rest of the world would hate us for what we do with our own food that we grow and produce. It is not our obligation to feed Africa if they chose to fight with each other rather than work and grow food for themselves.

      August 22, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bart Flaster

      No, it isn't.

      Listen to Noam Chomsky and you will learn why.

      August 22, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • VEW2012

      Matt you definitely have a problem with understanding that not all of Africa's food problem is due to them fighting, (as you want to conclude) plus their being too lazy (as you wish to imply) to grow their own food. Much of the problem is due to their lack of arable soiL and the proper growing conditions which would provide sustainable food production...alas those deficiencies are also the fundamental reasons for their wars.

      August 22, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Luterinho

    This is a silly question: WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY IS IT WASTED?

    August 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  4. jimdog33

    These numbers seem high for the average person. If retail chains, mass grocery stores, restaurants etc are included in the total, I can see that # being legit.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Vad

    The article has some value to it. We could always improve ourselves and our habbits. Having said that:

    How do we translate less waste over here into more food where it's needed?

    If we consume less does that mean we will put others out of work? Isn't that a form of waste?

    The article raises a good point about buffets throwing out their food because of health codes. Does that mean resturants and grocery stores are more likely to throw out food than give away leftovers because they are afraid of breaking the law and getting sued by someone they are trying to help?

    If I donated to an organization like Red Cross or some other good intentioned organization, how can I be sure the food is going to needy civilians instead of being seized by some greedy warlord?

    The best thing I can think of is to donate to a trusted local food bank and waste less.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • VEW2012

      And doing that is a good start. Our local Master Gardener group raises and donates fresh produce to the local food kitchen that feeds the homeless...everyone can do a small part. More restaurants could do the same ... if only they would.

      August 22, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Josie

    The BIBLE tells me that food will be plenty for those that believe in the LORD and have earned his LOVE. I will continue to be blessed with this overabundance and let those of you going to HELL worry about your shortages.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • prayer

      What really irks me is to watch my family pray over every bit of food that is put before them and then throw at least a quarter of it in the trash (either at the end pf the meal or after the 2-3 days of denial in which the leftovers sit in the fridge). It's like saying, and may God forgive me for the wording: "Dear Lord, please bless this food that I'm going to throw in the garbage. Thanks, Amen."

      August 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bart Flaster

      Sounds like Christian love.

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

      Not sure if serious...

      August 22, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  7. BostonBeebs

    Humanity is a virus to this planet. A total infection.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Duh

      Not a virus, more like a rash.

      August 22, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bart Flaster

      Self and species hate much?

      Don't buy into the negative way information is presented by others and especially the media.

      IF we are the problem, we are also the solution.

      August 22, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  8. BldrRepublican

    A great amount of food is wasted because people assume the “use by” date is a “drop-dead” line that one cannot cross. How is it that a bag of Fritos is ok at 11:59pm on the day before the expiration date stamped on the bag, yet 2 minutes later every single Frito in the bag is “poisonous” and must be discarded because it’s “expired”.

    That is shear lunacy. If it smells bad, it’s bad. Otherwise eat it and shut up. Stop being such a prima-donna elitist and worrying about expiration dates on food. You’ll know it if the food has spoiled.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bart Flaster

      My dad was killed by a bag of expired Fritos.

      Ironically, it occurred at 12:01 am one minute past its expiration date.

      August 22, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Nutritional Services Worker

    You want to know where food is wasted? School cafeterias. I've worked at the elementary levels, middle school and high school. Elementary kids MUST take a milk, fruit/veggie, main dish, etc. They will say, "but I don't like milk", or "I don't like apples".... and as a food service worker we respond, "thats okay sweetie, you still have to take it but you don't have to eat or drink it"...... I have seen hundreds of unopened milk or unopened Smuckers PBJ sandwiches and hundreds of apples, bananas, oranges, etc... you name it, they throw it away. At the end of the lunch shift, we throw ALL leftovers away. We throw away fresh salads made that day. So, you want to see waste? Go visit the lunch rooms across America. Anyone dumpster diving behind a school at the end of the day would find a bounty of good useable food.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vad

      Sounds like the bigger problem is with kids who for whatever reason don't want to eat fruit and vegtables and drink things that are better for them than pop. Sad.

      August 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  10. severhead

    I've been blown away by the amount of food i see wasted. I used to work at the cafe on campus back in college...and on days when I worked the dishroom...plate after plate after plate would come in with half-eaten or untouched food. On top of that....the cafe would dump container after container of food at the end of the night because it overprepared and undersold. That was day in and day out of food just hitting the garbage. I guess now is a good time to be homeless and a dumpster diver...cause there's jsut bounties of food untouched in our dumpsters. Just hit the middle of the pile and you're set for a buffet 😀

    August 22, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  11. cib1

    We need to change our mindset and behavior. After discarding some chicken and other food recently, I suddenly realized how often I do this simply because I don't want to cook or want to eat something else. The problem is the animal has already been slaughtered.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. danstrayer

    Another American disgrace.......part of this is from living in a culture of litigation, e.g., the local grocery chain store will NOT reduce price on or give away even an apple with a spot on it for fear of being sued. I asked the manager when in human history someone has died from eating a bruised apple, and he said, tough, we're not doing it. What a disgusting inexcusable waste of resources.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • carlin123

      I have a solution. Start eating the lawyers.

      August 22, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • max3333444555

      i dont know where you work but it sounds like i should buy produce there. i dont want a bruised apple

      August 22, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Observer


    August 22, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. carlin123

    Were the fattest hogs on the planet now. Imagine if we ate it all.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  15. This be why it's pitched

    If your city served up Taco Bell & Rally's..you'd pitch this slop, too! Give me TV-Dinners or give me death!

    August 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
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