Growing up, I learned early on from my parents and grandparents that a “sell by” date does not mean that the product is not safe to eat. The nose is quite an effective instrument in determining if food is safe to eat. Apparently, many Americans take the sell-by date as Gospel truth. A recent paper by the National Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC) found that American families throw out approximately 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy, costing an estimated $1,365 to $2,275 a year for a family of four. Confusion over label dates is one reason listed by the report as why people throw so much food away.
A total of 40 percent of food in the U.S. ends up uneaten, which amounts to over 20 pounds of food per person every month. Americans are throwing away the equivalent of $165 billion a year. Americans waste 10 times more food than Southeast Asians, up 50 percent from the 1970s. Throwing away that much food causes problems. Uneaten food is the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste (MSW), and accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions. Food making it from a farmer’s field to plates takes up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land and accounts for 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the U.S. There is another reason why throwing away that much food is not a good idea: Reducing food losses by 15 percent would feed over 25 million Americans a year. One in six Americans today are food insecure.
Losses occur in every part of the food supply chain in the U.S. starting with farming. There is one main cause for food loss on farms: not harvesting some crops. There are several reasons why farmers may not harvest a crop:
- Low market prices may make it more cost efficient to not harvest when the costs of labor and transportation are factored in
- Hedging against weather or pests or speculate on high prices can lead to bumper crop years, making it not cost efficient to harvest all of a crop
In stores, losses in the U.S. totaled an estimated 43 billion pounds in 2008, equivalent to 10 percent of the total food supply at the retail level. The USDA estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion a year in unsold fruits and vegetables. The causes of food losses in the retail sector include overstocked product displays, expired ‘sell by’ dates and produce arriving in preset quantities that are too much for consumer demand.
Food waste in the restaurant industry is also a big problem. About four to 10 percent of food purchased by restaurants becomes kitchen loss before reaching the consumer. Diners also waste food. Some of the food served is never eaten because the portions served are too big. Diners leave, on average, 17 percent of meals uneaten and 55 percent of these potential leftovers are not taken home. Portion sizes have increased over the past 30 years. From 1982 to 2002, the average pizza slice increased 70 percent in calories, and the average chicken caesar salad doubled in calories.
The importance of food recovery
Food recovery is one means of reducing food loss, and it includes gleaning from fields, collecting food thrown into dumpsters by grocery stores, and stores donating food to non-profit organizations. The Bill Emerson Food Donation Act, signed into law in 1996 by then President Clinton, protects donors from food safety liability when donating food to a non-profit organization. There is a low awareness about this law. Transportation can also be an obstacle when it comes to stores donating food. Some food banks just don’t have the resources to collect donated food.
Photo: Flickr user, Nick Saltmarsh
Related post: Will Banning Food Waste From Landfills Change Anything?