In U.S., food is wasted from farm to fork

August 21, 2012

Americans throw away up to 40 percent of their food every year, cramming landfills with at least $165 billion worth of produce and meats at a time when hundreds of millions of people suffer from chronic hunger globally, according to an analysis released Tuesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The analysis, a compilation of various studies and statistics, found that waste exists from farm to fork even as an ongoing drought threatens to boost food prices. But the resources that the government has devoted to identifying where the inefficiencies exist and how to combat them pale in comparison with efforts underway in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, the report concluded.

For now, the relatively low U.S. prices make it easy to toss food, which may explain why the average American family of four ends up trashing the equivalent of up to $2,275 worth of food each year, the report said. These wasteful tendencies have worsened over time, with the average American dumping 10 times as much food as a consumer in Southeast Asia, up 50 percent from the 1970s.

Against that backdrop, it’s no wonder that food makes up the largest component of solid waste in landfills, said Dana Gunders, the NRDC scientist who authored the study. The frustration for environmentalists is that natural resources — water, land and energy — are used to produce all that uneaten food, which is why the NRDC is weighing in on the topic, Gunders said.

“We’re essentially tossing every other piece of food that crosses our path,” she said in a statement. “That’s money and precious resources down the drain.”


A look at food waste. (The Washington Post/Source: National Resource Defense Council, Journal of Consumer Affairs, Food and Agriculture Organization)

The analysis cites weak spots along every step of the food production chain.

On the farm, growers sometimes do not harvest foods because of poor market prices that make it difficult for them to recoup their labor and transportation costs, the report said.

The market also forces­ growers to cull the crops they do harvest, removing foods (produce in particular) with blemishes or other cosmetic defects. The report cites a farmer who estimates that 75 percent of the cucumbers he culls are edible and a tomato-packing house that says it can fill a dump truck with 22,000 pounds of discarded tomatoes every 40 minutes in mid-season.

Once perishable goods are shipped, they are too often rejected by distributors responsible for getting them to the stores and even by food banks, which sometimes receive more food than they can use at once, the NRDC report said.

But many studies suggest that most of the waste takes place in stores and homes.

The government estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion each year in unsold fruits and vegetables alone. The NRDC attributes some of these losses to overstocking products to impress customers. In restaurants and other food service outlets, which also suffer steep food waste-related losses, large portion sizes that far exceed the serving sizes recommended by the government play a significant role, the NRDC study said.

Last year, industry groups — including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Restaurant Association — launched an initiative designed to help them donate more food and cut back on the estimated 36 million tons of food sent to landfills every year. The groups aim to assess by year’s end how they can best meet those goals.

But Europe has a head start.

The European Parliament has adopted a resolution that would slash food waste in half by 2020, and nearly five dozen leading retailers and brands there have committed to reducing food waste, the NRDC said. In the United Kingdom, which launched a “Love Food Hate Waste” campaign five years ago, some retailers already are using promotions aimed at discouraging consumers from buying more than they need — as in “get half off” instead of the “buy one get one free” tactics often used in this country, the NRDC said.

On this side of the Atlantic, U.S. regulators could clear up confusion over date labeling, Gunders said. The “use by” and “sell by” dates are not federally regulated in this country, except for poultry and infant formula, and they often reflect when the product passes its peak quality rather than the product’s safety, she said.

As a result, consumers end up tossing food that’s safe to eat.

And they’re not proud of it, according to a survey released this month by Shelton Group, an advertising agency. Of the 1,000 people polled by the group, 39 percent rated wasting food as their top “green guilt” — the highest ranking, well ahead of leaving the lights on when they leave the room (27 percent) or not recycling (21 percent.)

Suzanne Shelton, the group’s founder, said people have the best of intentions when they fill their grocery baskets with meats and fresh produce. But life gets in the way. “We get swamped at work, or have to get our kids to various activities and we find ourselves picking up a pizza on the way home,” Shelton said in a statement. “By the end of the week, we’re throwing out the spoiled food from our refrigerators.”

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
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