America wastes roughly 40 percent of its food. 1 Of the estimated 125 to 160 billion pounds of food that goes to waste every year, much of it is perfectly edible and nutritious. 2 Food waste also has a staggering price tag, costing this country approximately $218 billion per year. 3 At a time when 12 percent of American households are food insecure 4, reducing food waste by just 15 percent could provide enough sustenance to feed more than 25 million people, annually. 5
According to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS), food waste is defined as “the component of food loss that occurs when an edible item goes unconsumed, as in food discarded by retailers due to color or appearance and plate waste by consumers.” 6 Food waste includes the half-eaten meal left on the plate at a restaurant, food scraps from preparing a meal at home and the sour milk a family pours down the drain. 7 What the USDA definition does not include, however, is the amount of food that is lost in quantity at every step of the production process.
In fact, food is discarded at every point along the food chain: on farms and fishing boats, during processing and distribution, in retail stores, in restaurants and at home. 8
Food production in the US uses 15.7 percent of the total energy budget, 9 50 percent of all land 10 and 80 percent of all fresh water consumed. 11 Yet 20 billion pounds of produce is lost on farms every year. 12 Food waste occurs on farms for a variety of reasons. First, to hedge against pests and weather, farmers often plant more than consumers demand. Second, food may not be harvested because of damage by weather, pests and disease. Third, if the price of produce on the market is lower than the cost of transportation and labor, sometimes farmers will leave their crops un-harvested. Cosmetic imperfections or “ugly” produce is another significant source of food waste on farms both before and after harvest as are food safety scares and improper refrigeration and handling. 13 Finally, in recent years, farmers have been forced to leave food in the fields due to labor shortages caused by changing immigration laws0. 14
A recent study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that eight percent of the fish caught in the world’s marine fisheries is discarded — about 78.3 million tons per year. 15 Discards are the portion of the catch of fish that are not retained and are often returned dead or dying back into the water. 16 Other studies estimate that 40 to 60 percent of the fish caught by European trawlers in the North Sea are discarded at sea. 17 18 And a recent US study found that 16 to 32 percent of bycatch are thrown away by American commercial fishing boats. 19 Tropical shrimp trawling has the highest discard rate and accounts for over 27 percent of total estimated discards. 20 Discarding throws the ocean’s ecosystem off balance by increasing food for scavengers and killing large numbers of target and non-target fish species. 21
Some produce that does not meet strict retailer or consumer cosmetic standards go to suppliers for processing, but even if they are willing to accept the produce, the supplier must be close enough to justify transportation costs and able to accept large volumes of produce. These cost barriers make it particularly challenging for small and midsize farmers to get these secondary items to processors. 22
It is estimated that two billion pounds of food are wasted at the food processing or manufacturing stage, but this does not include the significant amount of food waste from food processing facilities that goes to animal feed, compost or recycling facilities. 23 In the US, about 33 percent of food waste from manufacturing goes to animal feed. 24 Most waste at manufacturing and processing facilities is generated while trimming off edible portions, such as skin, fat, crusts and peels from food. Overproduction, product damage and technical problems at manufacturing facilities can cause large quantities of food waste, as well. 25
During food transportation and distribution, perishable foods are vulnerable to loss, especially in developing nations where access to adequate and reliable refrigeration, infrastructure and transportation can be a challenge. However, in the US this is not a significant source of food waste; but food waste does occur when produce spoils from improper refrigeration. 26 A larger problem occurring at this stage is the rejection of perishable food shipments, which are thrown out if another buyer can’t be found quickly. It is estimated that between two and five percent of food shipments are rejected by food buyers. 27 Even if these goods make it to market, they are often wasted anyway because of shorter shelf lives. Often, rejected food shipments are donated to food rescue organizations, but the quantities are too large to accept. 28
An estimated 43 billion pounds of food were wasted in US retail stores in 2010. 29 This is particularly disconcerting given that in 2016, 12.3 percent of American households were food insecure. 30 Most of the loss in retail operations is in perishables, including baked goods, produce, meat, seafood and prepared meals. 31 The USDA estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion annually in unsold fruit and vegetables alone. 32 Unfortunately, wasteful practices in the retail industry are often viewed as good business strategies. Some of the main drivers for food loss at retail stores include: overstocked product displays, expectation of cosmetic perfection of fruits, vegetables and other foods, oversized packages, the availability of prepared food until closing, expired “sell by” dates, damaged goods, outdated seasonal items, over purchasing of unpopular foods and under staffing. 33
Currently, only 10 percent of edible wasted food is recovered each year, in the US. 34 Barriers to recovering food are liability concerns, distribution and storage logistics and funds needed for gleaning, collecting, packaging and distribution. The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, signed into law in 1996, provides legal liability protection for food donors and recipients and tax benefits for participating businesses. However, awareness about this law and trust in the protections it offers remains low. 35
US restaurants generate an estimated 22 to 33 billion pounds of food waste each year. Institutions — including schools, hotels and hospitals — generate an additional 7 to 11 billion pounds per year. 36 Approximately 4 to 10 percent of food purchased by restaurants is wasted before reaching the consumer. Drivers of food waste at restaurants include oversized portions, inflexibility of chain store management and extensive menu choices. 37 According to the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, on average, diners leave 17 percent of their meals uneaten and 55 percent of edible leftovers are left at the restaurant. 38 This is partly due to the fact that portion sizes have increased significantly over the past 30 years, often being two to eight times larger than USDA or Federal Drug Administration (FDA) standard servings.
Kitchen culture and staff behavior such as over-preparation of food, improper ingredient storage and failure to use food scraps and trimmings can also contribute to food loss. 39 All-you-can-eat buffets are particularly wasteful, since extra food cannot legally be reused or donated due to health code restrictions. 40 The common practice of keeping buffets fully stocked during business hours (rather than allowing items to run out near closing) creates even more waste.
Households are responsible for the largest portion of all food waste. ReFED estimates that US households waste 76 billion pounds of food per year. 41 Approximately 40 to 50 percent of food waste (including 51 to 63 percent of seafood waste 42) happens at level of the consumer. 43 In the US, an average person wastes 238 pounds of food per year (about 25 percent of the food they buy), costing them $1,800 per year. 44 In terms of total mass, fresh fruits and vegetables account for the largest losses at the consumer level (19 percent of fruits and 22 percent of vegetables), followed by dairy (20 percent), meat (21 percent) and seafood (31 percent). 45 Major contributors to household food waste include:
There are several macro-level drivers of the food waste problem in the US and globally. One is the difficulty of turning new consumer awareness into action. Public awareness about food waste in the US has improved significantly over the last few years. This is largely due to the efforts of organizations like the Ad Council and their Save the Food campaign, and coverage of the topic from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, National Geographic, BBC, Consumer Reports and the more than 3,300 articles written about the issue by major news and business outlets between 2011 and 2016 — a 205 percent increase over that period. 54
Additionally, in 2015, the USDA and the US Environmental Protection Agency adopted federal targets to cut food waste by 50 percent by 2030. 55 In 2016 a survey by the Ad Council of 6700 adults, 75 percent of respondents said that food waste was important or very important to them. However, limited data makes it difficult to assess whether this awareness has turned into action and whether or not people are actually wasting less food now than they were before. Consumers remain the largest source of food waste and more needs to be done to help educate the public and provide people with resources to help them implement food saving practices at home. 56
Another reason why food waste has become such a large problem is that it has not been effectively measured or studied. A comprehensive report on food losses in the US is needed to characterize and quantify the problem, identify opportunities and establish benchmarks against which progress can be measured. A study of this type by the European Commission in 2010 proved to be an important tool for establishing reduction goals in Europe and can serve as a model for US policymakers. 57
Only five percent of food is composted in the US 58 and as a result, uneaten food is the single largest component of municipal solid waste. In landfills, food gradually breaks down to form methane, a greenhouse gas that’s up to 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. 59 According to a report from the UK based organization WRAP, if food were removed from UK landfills, the greenhouse gas abatement would be equivalent to removing one-fifth of all the cars in the UK from the road. 60
Consumer food waste also has serious implications for energy usage. A study by the consulting group McKinsey found that, on average, household food losses are responsible for eight times the energy waste of farm-level food losses due to the energy used along the food supply chain and in preparation. 61
In addition, food waste is responsible for more than 25 percent of all the freshwater consumption in the US each year, and is among the leading causes of fresh water pollution. 62 Given all the resources demanded for food production, it is worth our while to make sure that the food we produce is not wasted.