Food Waste in America

A recent report published in The Guardian found that approximately sixty million tons of food are wasted in the United States each year. This constitutes one-third of all the food produced in the U.S. each year, priced at $160 billion. Food waste comprises the largest portion of U.S. landfills and has become the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the country. This is occurring at a time when one in six Americans are facing hunger, most Americans aren’t receiving all the nutrients they need, and the U.S. is working to combat the effects of climate change. To ameliorate these issues, Americans will need to waste less food.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 60% of food waste occurs on the consumer-side of the food supply chain. There is widespread agreement that a principal cause of food waste in America stems from consumer tastes in produce. According to Jay Johnson, “It’s all about blemish-free produce.” In other words, if produce is not visually appealing to consumers, they will not buy it. If produce becomes blemished after purchase many consumers will simply throw it out, even though in many cases the blemish has no effect on the quality or taste of the fruit or vegetable.

Supplier-side waste also shares a large portion of the blame. As Johnson, the Florida-based food grower, also in the Guardian report, food manufactures such as Whole Foods and Walmart are starting to take notice of consumers’ distaste for seemingly unperfected produce. He has observed many food stores in recent years refuse to purchase good food with minor blemishes because it doesn’t sell in their stores. He also concedes many farmers like himself have begun to feed the blemished produce to their animals or just leave it on the ground rather than load it onto a truck since it likely won’t be purchased. While it is reasonable for a food manufacturer to not put a product on their shelves that will not sell, farmers are losing incentive to grow their crops which poses serious concerns for the future.

Much of food waste, however, is not due to Americans being too picky when it comes to produce. A Harvard University study found that as many as 90% of Americans ditch good food because of confusion surrounding expiration dates. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) reports that their member stores use ten different variations to express an expiration date. “Best if used by,” “Sell by,” “Use by” are just some of the most commonly used variations. While twenty states have regulations regarding expiration labels, at the federal level only infant formula expiration dates are regulated. In the thirty states without regulations, the manufacturers are left to determine which word variation and date to use. The lack of uniformity across state lines and products has fostered the kind of confusion that leads to food waste.

Food waste is also not simply inefficient, it is equally a public health concern. As a study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics explains, an “average American man and woman does not get enough dietary fiber, yet we toss enough of it for 74 million women or 48 million men.” In other words, the types of food we are throwing are often those which provide our bodies with the nutrients we need most.

Since food waste is a multi-faceted public policy issue, it requires multiple reforms in order to effectively manage the issue. The first action that should be taken is to standardize expiration date labeling at the the federal level. Too many Americans are confused by current wording variations used to express when food is no longer safe to eat. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced legislation last year which seeks to do just that. Pingree’s bill would require food manufactures to simply use two variations: “sell by” and “use by.” Therefore, stores would know when they should take the product off their shelves and the consumer would know when the product is no longer safe to eat.

Additionally, Congress should include additional funding in the next Farm Bill for a USDA ad campaign to educate the public about widespread food waste in the United States. As Emily Broad-Leib of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Center opines, “if Americans don’t understand food waste the new labels won't help. And ultimately, neither will anything else.” Simplifying food labels is an important step towards reducing waste, but ultimately, if Americans don’t understand the significance of these reforms, food waste will persist.