Americans are prolific at wasting food. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last month, 133 billion pounds of food was discarded in the retail and consumer sectors in 2010 (1). The value of loss was roughly $161.6 billion, that’s about 429 pounds per person annually.
Interestingly enough, the majority of Americans food waste originates at the consumer level. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states in a recent report that the average American family throws out approximately 25% of the food they purchase, equalling anywhere from $1,365 to $2,275 annually (2). Making matters worse, Americans are oblivious to their own habitual waste. Many of us recall our grandparents and older family members accounting of our country’s struggle during The Great Depression. There was no available food, store shelves were barren, and the lack of money plagued the United States for almost ten years. America learned to do without. Today many have no conception of real hunger. And, the majority of American public, including our downtrodden, homeless and desolate are privileged compared to many a third world country.
It might be interesting to learn one of the leading factors of food waste in this country is a direct result from confusion over expiration dates (2). Americans have little or no knowledge of the actual meaning of expiration dates and how it impacts food safety. The dates printed on food product packaging are not regulated by any government organization (with the exception of infant formula). However, manufacturers generally assign dates to their products in an effort to insure an optimum time frame for consuming the food for taste and ultimate “freshness” purposes, but those dates have nothing to do with safety.
While consumer food sector accounts for the majority of food waste in this country, the retail sector also contributes significantly. 43 billion pounds of food, or 10% of the total retail food supply was wasted in 2008 (2). Thanks to the food science era of the 1950s, food production grew exponentially, and Americans became experts at producing large quantities of food.
“The future,” as it was called, heralded the age of frozen food, larger food yields, and new foods available for the first time. America is still benefitting from this age of abundance, however, this abundance is yielding grotesque waste. Super-size meals, value-size packaging, and wholesale clubs run rampant. Additionally, consumers expect fresh, perfect food everywhere and as a result, restaurants and grocery stores throw away astronomic amounts of perfectly edible food each day simply because it has “expired” or has slight imperfections.
One might ask, ‘why isn’t all of this food used to feed the hungry in our country and around the world?’ Well our laws are the main reason. One might logically concur if restaurants and grocery stores are going to throw out perfectly edible food, then why not provide it to the less fortunate and our homeless? The fact is many cities, counties, and states have strict laws prohibiting any non-governmental organization from providing food to the homeless.
Ultimately, food waste isn’t going away and American ingenuity must create ways to help reduce this waste. Thankfully, cities and counties have started programs to chip away at this national issue, providing alternatives to throwing food into landfills. If these proactive methods continue, perhaps America can reverse the trend and start to turn the tide on food waste in this country.