Why the U.S. Wastes More Food Than Almost Any Other Country

Expiration date confusion is just one of the causes

Throwing food away

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Food waste is a critical problem, and the United States stands knee deep in it. The U.S. was recently ranked as the second most wasteful country in the world after Australia. Research from Magnet found that Americans generate an average of 278 kilograms of food per person annually, topped only by Australia at 361 kg per capita. And in case you are wondering, the countries with the least food waste are Greece and China. Below, we take a look at why food waste is so important, and where it takes place in the journey from field to fork. 

Why Food Waste Is an Urgent Problem

Here are the critical points to understand about the food waste problem:

Food Insecurity: Just one-third of food waste in the U.S. could end food insecurity if it could be successfully distributed to those in need. Around 12.3 percent of American households were food insecure at some point during 2016, according to USDA. While academics may question whether food donations can make a difference in long-term poverty and food insecurity, it is clear that redistributed food to food banks can alleviate hunger.

Environmental Impact: Growing and shipping food requires resources and creates emissions. Agriculture accounts for 38 percent of water consumption in the U.S. Also, consider the CO2 emissions associated with transporting food, the methane gas created in raising livestock, and the water requirements. Additionally, nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer and animal waste find their way into waterways and result in eutrophication, including algal blooms and other floating plant formations.

So with close to 40 percent of food production never eaten, the consequences of food waste are impactful. About 21 percent of agricultural water consumption and 2.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food waste.  

Economic Impact: Food loss is valued at $218 billion in the U.S. and $31 billion in Canada. The cost of food waste to American farmers is $15 billion per year, along with $2 billion for U.S. manufacturers and $57 billion for American consumer-facing businesses, according to ReFED.

Causes of American Food Waste

The main sources of food waste vary among countries. In some nations, poor cold storage and refrigerated transportation availability result in much of food production being lost at the farm. In developed countries with sophisticated cold chains, losses are greater at the retail and consumer levels. In the U.S., almost 85 percent of food waste takes place in stores, restaurants, and homes.

Here are some of the important causes of food waste in America:

Expiration Date Confusion: Label confusion is believed to account for 20 percent of consumer waste, at a value of $29 billion. Up to 90 percent of households occasionally trash still fresh food. The variety of labeling practices, including “best-before”, “sell-by” and “use by” cause confusion. The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) has approved a plan to standardize food date labels globally, with a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2025.

Poor Practices at Home: Consumers throw away food for a variety of reasons. Affluence is often cited as a factor and is undoubtedly a contributing factor. The root causes often come down to poor planning, poor practices and a lack of awareness. Buying or preparing too much food, cooking food badly, or forgetting about items in the back of the fridge all can lead to more food in the trash or compost. Improper storage practices, including a lack of attention to storage container usage and temperature control, also result in waste. Education programs can help. In the UK, WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste initiative has resulted in a 21 percent decrease in consumer food waste over five years.

Overly Large Packages and Portions: Overly large containers and portions result in a lot of wasted food. Large bulk packs can encourage shoppers to buy too much in hopes of achieving net savings. The result is a false economy if half the package ends up getting tossed when it goes bad. Likewise, cooking and serving too much food can result in a wasted surplus. Cafeterias can reduce food waste by eliminating trays and utilizing smaller plates. After the University of Massachusetts Amherst eliminated trays from its dining halls, post-consumer food waste shrunk by 30 percent.

Inadequate Communication and Collaboration: Perishable food donations can be unpredictable. Food banks may not be aware of them, or due to timing, may not have time to respond to opportunities. Donation software solutions such as Spoiler Alert, Zero Percent, and Food Rescue helping to improve communication between food surplus generators and food banks, enabling the earlier identification and pickup of surplus food.

A Lack of Waste Tracking and Analytics: As the old adage states, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Some new software is helping retailers and restaurants to accurately track their food waste data, and are using this information to make corrective actions in support of curbing food loss. Examples of such software include the Conserve program offered by the National Restaurant Association, as well as private options such as LeanPath.  

The Quest for Perfect Produce: Over the years, retailers have increasingly come to compete on product appearance, requiring only the biggest and the best of fresh produce items in order to boost sales. According to the UK-based Soil Association, crops that fail in appearance can result in produce rejections of 20 percent to 40 percent. A NRDC Issue Paper discusses one cucumber grower who estimates that 75 percent of his rejected product is edible. By utilizing imperfect produce—items that may be differently shaped, sized or colored, food waste can be reduced. Initiatives have been made to market ugly produce.

With initiatives underway, positive steps are being taken to help improve America's prospect for food recovery. Awareness of the problem, proactive efforts and the availability of straightforward solutions can help put a lid on food waste.