Study: 40 Percent of Food Produced in U.S. Goes Uneaten

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Last spring, my CSA share had a surprise for me. In it were some carrots that a friend dubbed “zombie hands” when I posted a picture on Facebook. It would have been easy to have thrown them out because they didn’t conform to the ones we get that are neatly bagged at the local grocery store. But I ended up slicing the zombie-hand carrots up, doused them with olive oil and roasted them. And darn, if they weren’t incredibly tasty!

    Unfortunately, a lot of people would have tossed those carrots and other foods. And others, like me, sometimes let food go to waste, such as a couple of forgotten containers of strawberries that had been inadvertently pushed to the back corner of the refrigerator earlier this year.

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    So how much food goes to waste? An analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 40 percent of the food produced in the United States goes uneaten. That amounts to 20 pounds of food for you and another 20 pounds for me. The cost for throwing out this food is approximately $165 billion annually. And that food we throw away? It actually is the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste and accounts for approximately 25 percent of our country’s methane emissions.

    The council notes that reducing food loses by 15 percent would allow more than 25 million Americans to have enough food every year. To help reach that level, the NRDC encourage all stakeholders to look at their own food practices. “The U.S. government should conduct a comprehensive study of losses in our food system and set national goals for waste reduction; businesses should seize opportunities to streamline their own operations, reduce food losses and save money; and consumers can waste less food by shopping wisely, knowing when food goes bad, buying produce that is perfectly edible even if it’s less cosmetically attractive, cooking only the amount of food they need, and eating their leftovers,” the NRDC report recommends.

    The NRDC recommends the following steps for businesses:

    • Conduct regular food waste audits that are measured.
    • Encourage cooperation so that unused food gets donated to organizations that can distribute it.
    • Disseminate and encourage the use of best practices by businesses.
    • Encourage innovation through online solutions and new technologies.

    The council’s recommendations for government are:

    • Conduct a comprehensive study of the U.S. food system to identify food losses.
    • Establish national goals related to food loss.
    • State and local governments need to take action to decrease the amount of food loss.
    • Address the confusion of date labeling, which does not necessarily indicate food safety.
    • Support and enable food recovery
    • Improve public awareness.

    The NRDC’s recommendations for consumers include:

    • Shopping wisely through planning meals, using shopping lists, buying from bulk bins and avoiding impulse buys.
    • Understand expiration dates. “’Sell by’ and ‘use by’ dates are not federally regulated and do not indicate safety, except on certain baby foods,” the report explains. “Rather, they are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. Many foods can be safely consumed after their ‘sell by’ and ‘use by’ dates.”
    • Buy imperfect products.
    • Freeze unused ingredients.
    • Serve smaller portions and save leftovers.

    The council also suggests steps for each stage in the food supply system. These include:

    • Harvest – Revise quality and aesthetic standards. Expand alternative outlets and secondary markets for off-grade foods. Practice farm-level food recovery. Enact regulatory measures that provide incentives for complete harvests.
    • Processing – Focus on reengineering through redesigning product, reworking manufacturing processes and adopting new technologies. Consider potential uses for trimmings and peelings, such as compost or animal food.
    • In-store – Analyze needs at the item level. Use discount shelves. Redesign product displays. Allow prepared foods to run out close to closing. Make more food donations to local agencies.
    • Beyond the store – Increase flexibility in contract terms and grading standards. Adjust promotions. Educate consumers. Use date codes.
    • Restaurants and food operators – Adapt menus to increase efficiency of food use. Improve planning and manage training. Audit waste and engage staff to help lower food waste. Encourage guests to take food home. Learn about donating foods to appropriate organizations.

    I think we all need to be more aware of the food we consume -- as well as the food that we throw out. I hope you’ll join me in taking steps to limit food waste by adopting the NRDC recommendations that are appropriate for you. And that means I'll continue eating those zombie-hand carrots and other strange-looking produce that comes in my weekly share - or offering it to someone else to use instead of tossing the strange vegetable in the garbage.

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    Gunders, D. (2012). Wasted: How American is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill. The National Resources Defense Council.

Published On: August 23, 2012