News

How the U.S. can stop wasting so much food

Posted July 26

The United States can waste up to 133 billion pounds of food in a year, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s $161 billion worth of food. (Deseret Photo)

UK-based supermarket Tesco made headlines recently by announcing it had wasted enough food to make 119 million meals in 2015. And France also attracted attention when it passed legislation this year making it illegal for supermarkets to destroy or throw away unsold food.

Arash Derambarsh, the councillor responsible for the bill, asked President Barack Obama to pass similar legislation in a Huffington Post video.

“[Americans] want to see a strong gesture before you leave the White House," Derambarsh said in French. "It's very easy to do.”

A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the United States can waste up to 133 billion pounds of food in a year. That’s $161 billion worth of food.

But the U.S. government has pursued a more incentive-based approach. Instead of making it illegal to throw or away or damage food, the federal government offers groceries stores tax breaks to donate unsold product.

JoAnne Berkenkamp of the Natural Resources Defense Council works with food waste as well and said France’s methodology is “very interesting,” but he is hoping for a more altruistic approach in the U.S.

“I look forward to seeing what comes of it,” Berkenkamp said. “But I would like grocery stores in the United States to start donating food voluntarily, without regulatory intervention.”

Grocery stores account for the second-highest amount of food waste annually, following personal households, according to Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED) data. Each year, grocery stores waste about 25 million tons — or $57 billion worth — of food.

Berkenkamp said grocery stores are often afraid to donate food before it goes bad because they don’t want to be blamed for any food-borne illness it may cause, but that the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects them from any liability.

“We have a liability law that is the envy of nations all around the world,” Berkenkamp said. “It enables grocery stores to donate food without fear.”

But while gorcery stores continue to contribute to annual food waste, even more comes right out of our own kitchens, according to ReFED. Each year, the public wastes 27 million tons of food, which comes out to $144 billion.

Jonathan Bloom, author of "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It)" said there are three major factors contributing to family food waste in the United States: abundance, beauty and cost.

The farms that provide so many Americans with their food contribute about 10 million tons of food waste each year, which comes out to about $15 billion, according to ReFED.

“We are producing twice the amount of food we need per person per year,” Bloom said. “Given that oversupply, it’s not terribly surprising that we’re so darn wasteful with that food.”

Berkenkamp said it’s mostly produce and vegetables that are wasted in the farm arena, and Bloom said that produce is often wasted because of “cosmetic superficialities.”

“Beauty references this notion that a food doesn’t just have to taste good, it also has to look perfect,” Bloom said. “And any food item that does not look just right for any reason tends to be cast aside at some point in the food chain. Those cosmetic superficialities drive a whole lot of food waste.”

Finally, Bloom said the low cost of food may seem economically beneficial, but its lessening the value of what we consume.

“Despite rising food prices … Americans are near all-time lows in terms of the percentage of household budget that goes toward food,” Bloom said. “It feels cheap, and it is. As a result, we aren’t very careful with the food that we purchase. No other nation spends as little on its food supply as we do in America, and that has a direct impact on how wasteful we are with our food.”

When it comes to preventing food waste, Bloom said be wary of misleading labels on food packaging.

"There’s so much confusion around what those date labels mean that leads to a whole lot of food being thrown away unnecessarily," Bloom said. "Essentially, all the food labels currently used today refer to the quality of that food, not to any kind of safety requirement."

A spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration said in an email that use-by labels are only federally required on packaging for infant formula and that “the FDA can take action against any food in interstate commerce that is adulterated or misbranded, whether or not the product bears a use-by or best-by date, and whether or not the product is within that date or beyond the date.”

“We offer this as a consumer tip: Check expiration dates on foods,” the email went on to say. “If food is past its ‘use-by’ date, discard it. If you're not sure or if the food looks questionable, the simple rule is: 'When in doubt, throw it out.'"

Bloom, who said an average family of four throws away $2,000 of food each year, said looking at waste in terms of dollars can also help a family make sense of its impact.

“Tying that financial incentive to reducing food waste tends to get people to pay attention,” Bloom said. “It’s money and food we’re leaving on the table.”

As for stores, farms and other manufacturers, Berkenkamp said it takes help from everyone to help prevent excessive waste.

“We need to enable and help the efforts being made to reduce food waste,” Berkenkamp said. “It can be difficult and expensive, but if more people are donating and helping out, we’ll all be better off.”

Email: sweber@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @sarapweber

Comments

Please with your WRAL.com account to comment on this story. You also will need a Facebook account to comment.

Oldest First
View all