Waste not, want not
By Jennifer M. Latzke
That last piece of pizza in the greasy take-out box. The fresh fruits and vegetables that rot before you can eat them. A take-home container of beef and broccoli that sits on the refrigerator shelf long past its expiration date.
All those leftovers neatly stored in doggy bags in refrigerators and those plate scrapings that go down the garbage disposal add up to about 133 billion pounds of food every year that are wasted from U.S. retail food stores, restaurants and homes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
USDA estimates American consumers waste 30 percent to 40 percent of the food supply. In 2008, that amount of uneaten food in homes and restaurants was valued at about $48.3 billion, or $390 per consumer. That’s more than the average month’s worth of food expenditures for a household. The Food Waste Reduction Alliance further estimates that 25 percent to 40 percent of the food that is grown, processed and transported in the United States will never be consumed.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a study in 2011, “Global Food Losses and Food Waste,” that showed roughly one-third of all food produced for human consumption globally is lost or wasted, or about 1.3 billion tonnes per year. FAO states that overall, on a per-capita basis, consumers in industrialized countries waste more food than those in developing countries. “We estimate that the per capita food waste by consumers in Europe and North America is 95 to 115 kilograms per year, while this figure in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia is only 6 to 11 kilograms per year,” according to the study’s findings.
And yet, according to USDA, 14.9 percent of households in the United States were food insecure in 2011—meaning they did not know from where their next meal would come. At every commodity group and agricultural organization gathering, members constantly hear that they will have to “feed 9 billion people in the world by 2050.” And environmentalists and conservationists consistently ask farmers and ranchers to produce more with fewer resources.
Several organizations are asking whether we might start feeding those extra mouths by being a little more food waste-conscious ourselves.
The topic of food waste or loss is a large one to tackle. Just defining food waste or loss alone can be difficult. The FAO uses “food loss” at the production, post-harvest and processing stages in the food supply chain. Once at the retail and consumption levels, then the term “food waste” is used.
“Per definition, food losses or waste are the masses of food lost or wasted in the part of food chains leading to edible products going to human consumption,” according to the FAO. The FAO further explained that food that was originally meant for human consumption but gets out of the human food chain is considered as food loss or waste even if it is directed to a non-food use such as livestock feed or bioenergy.
There are several points in the supply and consumption chain where food can be lost or wasted. In developing countries, according to the FAO, food losses often occur at the harvesting, storage and transportation phases. Simply put, these countries do not have infrastructure, packaging and transportation in place that would preserve the crop coming out of the field.
In industrialized nations, though, more than 40 percent of food waste occurs at the retail and consumer level, according to the FAO. “Food waste as consumer levels in industrialized countries (222 million ton) is almost as high as the total net food production in sub-Saharan Africa (230 million ton).”
When FAO broke food waste into seven commodity groups, it found within the cereals group wheat is the dominant crop supply in medium- and high-income countries, and the consumer phase shows the largest losses, between 40 percent to 50 percent of the total cereal food waste.
Within the fruits and vegetables commodity group, the industrialized regions of Europe, North America and Industrialized Asia showed the most losses at the production end of the chain, mostly because of the postharvest fruit and vegetable grading from quality standards set by retailers. Waste at the end of the food supply chain in those three regions accounted for 15 percent to 30 percent of purchases discarded by consumers.
It’s a matter of appearance for discerning consumers. For example, Tristram Stuart’s book, “Waste—understanding the global food scandal” looked at the carrot quality standards set by the British supermarket chain Asda in 2009. Carrots that were not bright orange, or had a blemish or were broken were sent off for livestock feed. Stuart found that 25 percent to 30 percent of all carrots handled by one major supplier were rejected due to physical or aesthetic defects—despite being edible.
In the meats and meat products commodity group, losses and waste in industrialized regions were most severe at the consumer level, the FAO study reported. High per-capita meat consumption combined with large waste proportions by retailers and consumers especially in Europe and the U.S., according to the study, makes up about half of total meat losses and waste.
Throughout the supply chain, from initial production to final consumption, medium- and high-income countries tend to throw away food even if it is still suitable for human consumption, and food can get lost when production exceeds demand, the FAO study concluded.
FAO’s study advised that reducing high appearance quality standards at the supermarket level may result in less edible food rejected for human consumption and sent into the livestock consumption chain. It also advised that reducing the quantity of products on display may help reduce the number of food products that expire sitting on the shelf ignored by consumers.
Among other recommendations, the FAO study said public awareness will be key in turning around the food waste problem.
“Perhaps one of the most important reasons for food waste at the consumption level in rich countries is that people simply can afford to waste food,” the study reported. “The amount of available food per person in retail stores and restaurants has increased during the last decades in both the United States and the European Union.” Buffet lines that encourage more food consumed, large quantities and bargain buys at the retail level, and oversized portions are all part of the problem.
This past June, the Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA collaborated to create the US Food Waste Challenge to raise awareness of the environmental, health and nutrition issues created by food waste.
“The United States enjoys the most productive and abundant food supply on earth, but too much of this food goes to waste,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a statement about the challenge. “Not only could this food be going to folks who need it—we also have an opportunity to reduce the amount of food that ends up in America’s landfills. By joining together with EPA and businesses from around the country, we have an opportunity to better educate folks about the problem of food waste and begin to address this problem across the nation.”
The challenge has a goal of 400 partners by 2015, and all segments along the food supply chain are invited to join—producer groups, processors, distributors, retailers, food services and more. This builds off the existing EPA Food Recovery Challenge that asks participants to set specific goals and measures progress of participants.
Participants in both have access to technical assistance to help them quantify and improve their sustainable food management practices, and they receive an annual climate report that translates their results into greenhouse gas reductions. Additionally, there are resources for participants to donate food.
The food sector in the United States is taking the challenge of food loss and waste seriously. In 2011, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association formed the Food Waste Reduction Alliance. The cross-industry initiative brings together more than 30 manufacturing, retailing and service companies, and expert partners from the anti-hunger community and waste management sector to collaborate on solutions.
The FWRA has three goals: to reduce the amount of food waste generated; to increase the amount of safe, nutritious food donated; and to recycle unavoidable food waste and divert it from landfills.
In June, the FWRA released a study that analyzed food waste data from food manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers who are trying to address the issue.
“The primary objective of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance is to reduce the volume of food waste sent to landfill by addressing the root causes of waste, and securing pathways to donate safe food or recycle it for use elsewhere. This new data not only helps us better understand how industry currently is managing food waste, it gives us a benchmark against which we can measure our progress,” said Susan Kujava, industry relations director at General Mills, Inc. and co-chair of the FWRA.
The study found that in the manufacturing sector in 2011, 94.6 percent of food waste was diverted from landfills to donation and recycling. And about 73 percent of food waste diverted by manufacturers went to animal feed. Manufacturers donated about 700 million pounds of safe food that would have otherwise gone to landfills.
In the retail and wholesale sector in 2011, 32 percent of food waste was diverted to donations, and 43 percent was diverted to composting. Retailers and wholesalers donated 670 million pounds of safe food and a total of 55.6 percent was diverted from landfills to higher uses.
While there’s still work to be done though to reduce food waste and loss in the United States, we are on the right path to changing our ways. It’s going to take everyone doing his or her part to reduce our waste so our neighbors do not want.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reducing food waste
Individual consumers can help reduce the food waste problem.
The EPA offers these ways to reduce wasted food:
Cook or eat what you already have at home before buying more.
Plan menus before shopping and stick to the list.
Buy in bulk only if you are able to use the food before it spoils.
Be creative with leftovers.
Donate nutritious, safe and untouched food to food banks.
Freeze, preserve or can surplus fruits and vegetables when in season.
Only order what you can finish at restaurants, and take home leftovers.
Take only what you can eat at buffets.
Compost food scraps to keep them from landfills.