Not all types of food in the United States end up in the fridge, freezer, or pantry. Nor are they consumed by Americans. A good number land in bins and landfills as food waste.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that as much as 40 percent of the country’s total food supply were wasted. This number was quoted over 10 years ago. Since then, the population has increased, and consumer behavior has changed. There’s a good chance that this percentage has already risen. Help end food waste.
While the problem of food waste in the US is both severe and wide-ranging, the reasons why this is happening are not as simple as others make it appear. Many factors contribute to it, including consumer confusion.
What Causes Food Waste?
Food waste can already be considered a travesty to humanity especially since food insecurity is a growing global problem. More than 35 million Americans are hungry. But why does it seem uncontrollable and unsolvable? It’s because many factors are influencing it.
1. Mumbo-Jumbo of Definitions
Anybody who has ever shopped for groceries has already come across terms like “best-by date,” “sell-by date,” and “use-by date.” Although they may sound alike, they don’t mean the same thing. In fact, they don’t even indicate the date of safety, contrary to what most people think.
To understand this point, it pays to discuss more food product dating. Unless the product is infant formula, no federal agency is mandating food manufacturers and processing companies to add any date in their products.
However, a vast majority do probably because consumers are already used to seeing the date and thus expect products to display it. Food brands also have two options on how to write these dates:
- Open dating, wherein the label includes a date range in which the quality of the product is the best. This is often used in fresh produce, such as meat, as well as products like bread.
- Closed dating, which is a series of letters and numbers that identify the production date and time. It is often used by manufacturers to track their products.
The terms mentioned above are related to open dating. But neither open nor closed dating talks about safety, so what do they stand for?
- A sell-by date isn’t intended for consumers. Instead, it is for retailers to help them determine how long they should keep the product on display or inventory.
- A best-by or before date, which is probably the most common product date, indicates the period when the product is at its best quality.
- A use-by date refers to the last date in which the product could be at its peak quality.
- A freeze-by date defines how long the product should remain frozen to maintain its quality
In other words, none of the dates tell how long or when the food will spoil or no longer be consumable. As long as the food is stored properly, Americans may still consume them. They may notice the quality deteriorates over time, which is expected, but it doesn’t mean they are no longer safe to eat.
The problem is because Americans don’t know these definitions by heart, they end up tossing away food products that are past their supposed dates.
2. Food Loss in the Supply Chain
No doubt, the confusing date terms on food labels can cause a lot of Americans to inadvertently throw away their grocery items. This type of waste makes up about 30 percent of food loss in the country. However, so do food loss that occurs in the supply chain. In fact, it accounts for at least 40 percent of the country’s food waste. Unfortunately, food loss can happen in almost every section of the supply-chain process:
Food Loss in Agriculture
The data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shared that about 30 percent of the global food loss is right at the production and harvest stage, which means before farmers can ever load their produce on trucks for distribution or further processing.
Food waste at this level happens because of the following reasons:
- The farm fails to harvest on time. They did it either prematurely or too late. In either case, the food is less likely fit for processing or consumption.
- Distributors or wholesalers don’t buy the harvest. It may happen if the farm-gate prices are too high.
- Weather is also another possible explanation. Sudden torrential rain can damage crops even before they are fit for harvest, for instance.
- Farms may be under quality-based contracts. Buyers may be more specific about the produce they want to buy. This suggests that low-quality harvests can already count as spoilage or waste.
- Farms don’t have enough or ideal storage infrastructure, such as refrigeration.
Food Loss in Processing and Packaging
Just because the produce or ingredient ends up in a manufacturing or processing facility doesn’t mean it gets used completely. Not all may even be processed. Probably because of quality, size, and other conditions.
Even when they are processed, they may still be rejected because they don’t pass the quality standards, which can be as simple as not meeting the ideal weight, color, or taste.
This is such a common occurrence among manufacturers. In fact, they allot a percentage of tolerable food wastage, which is around 5 percent. Although the figure may sound small, it may still total to several tons at the end of the year, considering these plants produce volumes.
Moreover, according to GreenBiz, as much as 25 percent of food waste that occurs at home is due to the size of the packaging or its design. The package may not be enough to completely protect the product, so it spoils fast. Condiments may stick to the bottom or the sides.
Food Loss in Distribution and Retail
The US also produces waste while the food product is still in transit. It happens when the delivery truck or van doesn’t come with sufficient storage or refrigeration. The lack of proper temperature control will lead to spoilage even before the goods reach the retailers.
Another potential explanation is the logistics issue. Factors such as weather, government policies, and other issues like the COVID-19 pandemic can hamper the flow of distribution and delivery. It increases the risk of spoilage while in transit.
Lastly, there’s food recall. Although the US doesn’t have the most number of recalls, it still had nearly 340 in 2019 alone. These problematic types of food will then end up in incinerators or landfills.
3. Poor Forecasting of Food Demand
Businesses that need to maintain inventory demand a lot of correct forecasting. After all, not having enough products for consumers means profit losses. On the other hand, having a lot suggests higher expenses, particularly overhead.
Food retailers and restaurants, among others, though, may find themselves in a predicament. Forecasting isn’t the easiest thing to do because
- they often deal with perishable goods with a short shelf life and
- their demand can increase or decrease depending on the situation. For example, a promo for a particular item may boost the demand for that while declining that of others.
Unlike canned goods, these businesses cannot store their fresh produce for a long period since their quality can deteriorate over time.
In recent news, the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the major events that have led to significant food waste and loss, particularly in the United States, as outlined by the Gardner Policy Series released in September 2020. Some of the vital points include:
- Dairy farmers lost a lot of money because, when schools closed, they were left with vast quantities of milk. They couldn’t convert it to products with a longer shelf life like cheese, and they couldn’t stop the production of cow’s milk. Thus, they ended up dumping these milk cartons.
- The challenge for poultry processing facilities stem from the fact that outbreaks happened. This led to shutdowns, fewer staff, and, thus, decreased output. Some were eventually forced to euthanize the chickens.
- Meanwhile, because of lockdowns, restaurants found themselves with existing stock that they couldn’t consume immediately.
4. Consumer Behavior
One cannot talk about the causes of food waste completely without also pointing the blame at consumers. In one of the industry studies, the total cost of food dumped into bins or landfills from homes cost a whopping $240 billion.
That’s nearly $2,000 for every household. This is more than enough to cover a lot of the essential household expenses – from mortgage to utilities or at least five months of the average student loan repayment.
That’s not all. The same report revealed that a typical American family would end up throwing away over 30 percent of their food supply. Why?
- A lot of people follow—and change—their diet. Specialized diet plans like keto, low-carb, vegan, whole30, or paleo all require specific ingredients. This means that whatever is in the fridge that doesn’t make it to the list could end up in the trash.
- Americans are busy as ever. How busy are Americans these days? They get no more than 30 minutes of free time each week. How does this affect food waste? It’s not uncommon for people to plan their meals and buy their groceries over the weekend. However, once busyness kicks in, hardly anyone has the time to make something from what they bought. In fact, at least 25 percent of Americans regularly put off cooking.
- Many still believe that certain foods are better than others. A perfect example is fresh versus canned versus frozen. A lot of Americans still think that fresh is always better than the other two options in terms of nutrition. In reality, frozen vegetables and fruits can have the same nutritional value. Canned ones may be just as healthy as well as long as they do not contain preservatives and too much sodium, sugar, salt, and fat.
During the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the rate of takeouts or curbside deliveries increased exponentially. The online sector alone grew to over $110 billion in 2020 compared to a little over $105 billion the previous year. Moreover, until 2023, this market could achieve a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.5 percent or a staggering $154 billion.
Although the growth of deliveries allowed many restaurants to survive, it also contributed to food waste. Many households failed to consume leftovers or cook the available ingredients.
What Happens to Food Waste?
Considering the different possible causes of food waste, it’s safe to say that everyone has contributed to it one way or the other. But there’s a bigger question besides the how: what is the impact of food waste on different aspects of people’s lives?
1. Environmental Impact
Food waste has a direct environmental impact not only here in the United States but around the world. Every morsel of food that doesn’t get consumed is also a waste of resources used to make it.
Agriculture, for example, uses up to 70 percent of freshwater around the globe. While the planet is surrounded by water, only a percent of that is drinkable or usable. Meanwhile, in 2015, the farming lands in the United States used at least 20 million tons of fertilizer.
Manufacturing and processing facilities, meanwhile, spend money on rent, utilities, equipment, and fuel, to name a few. Retailers may allot a part of their cash flow to higher costs for refrigeration.
Food waste is also strongly associated with worsening climate change. First, food that may end up in landfills can produce methane when they begin to rot. In the near term, it can speed up global warming since its ability to warm the planet is over 80 times worse than that of carbon dioxide within two decades since it reaches the atmosphere.
If that isn’t enough, it puts the world in a vicious cycle. Both global warming and climate change can impact agriculture by shortening or lengthening the harvest season, for instance. As mentioned, ill-time harvesting can lead to food loss.
Climate change can also potentially change the quality of food since it may alter the conditions of the soil, weather, and the responses of plants to these changes in their surroundings. Moreover, it can disrupt the availability of much-needed resources like water or sunshine.
Lastly, food waste can increase both land and water pollution especially in this age where many types of produce are wrapped in individual plastic or placed in Styrofoam containers. These, like food, can end up in landfills, where plastics can take about a thousand years to decompose.
Otherwise, they may find themselves in waterways and even bigger bodies of water such as the ocean where they can threaten marine life.
As food waste and plastics accumulate, the country may need more landfills, thereby converting vacant lands into dumpsites instead of using them to plant more crops and help resolve food insecurity.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has provided a mind-blowing list of costs associated with food waste:
- In 2012, the premature budding of cherries in Michigan during a warm winter caused the state at least $220 million in losses.
- Significant climate changes, such as rising temperatures, may encourage the growth of weeds and pests. They may also promote the reproduction or appearance of fungi and other microorganisms that can cause disease to plants and even animals. Thus, to help fight them, farmers spend around $10 billion annually to kill weeds alone.
- In 2011, during a massive heatwave, agricultural producers lost around a billion dollars as crops and animals cannot sustain the heat. Heat stress in animals can also aggravate low milk production and infertility.
Food waste can also contribute to indirect business costs, such as higher labor expenses. Imagine this: a farmer hires additional hands during harvest season, paying them the minimum wage but letting them work for up to 8 hours.
However, a hurricane passes by the town, damaging the structures in the land and, worse, leaving copious amounts of water that flood the plants.
Farmers may have no other choice but to harvest these goods before too much water destroys them further. But by this time, a significant portion of the yield may no longer be of quality. Sellers then may be faced with two choices, none of which is a win.
- First, they can sell their products below the farm gate price just to attract buyers.
- Second, throw them away, along with the costs of resources used for producing them.
Either way, the farmers end up with a lower profit, but they still need to pay the extra help their due.
Food waste might as well be a humanitarian crisis. First, it is a slap to the growing food insecurity in America.
According to the USDA, in 2019, at least 10.5 percent of households in the country didn’t have access or capability to meet their daily food needs some time during the year. About 5 million homes had significantly low food security.
Food insecurity is worse among certain demographics. In the same year, nearly 40 percent of food-insecure homes had incomes below the poverty line. The percentage was also higher among homes with a single parent as well as blacks and Hispanic families.
Moreover, although many parents protect their children from getting hungry, at least 13 percent still couldn’t escape experiencing the problem. In almost 7 percent of households, both parents and children were food insecure.
The COVID-19 pandemic made this social issue a lot worse as families lost their jobs and further strained an already low-income household. According to the data from Feeding America, about one in eight Americans could become food insecure in 2021.
The gargantuan amounts of food that end up in landfills and trash could have been donated to food banks, especially since none of the dates on the labels indicate a period of expiration. The food expires only when it shows signs of spoilage or contamination.
Second, as mentioned, food waste can aggravate climate change and global warming. Incidentally, these global issues also contribute to food insecurity.
In a 2020 study by Nature Food, UK researchers looked into the global yields of over 15 most-farmed crops. These include rye, cotton, cassava, oats, rice, sugar beet, barley, wheat, and soybeans. These types of produce represented around 70 percent of the global crops area.
They learned that climate change alone could already strain the farmers’ ability to produce the same amount of yield as before. In other words, they couldn’t meet the food demands of their market even if they would have the capability to pay.
Furthermore, the negative impact was the greatest on places that could already be facing severe food insecurity, such as Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Indonesia. As a side note, these are also places with the largest populations.
Meanwhile, David Attenborough revealed a startling statistic that said plastic pollution is a public health emergency and contributes to at least 400,000 deaths, particularly in the poorest nations.
These types of waste, for example, when they accumulate, can clog waterways, making these places breeding grounds for vectors of diseases like mosquitoes and flies. They can also increase the risk of flooding and, in turn, people displacement.
Significant Initiatives to Reduce Food Waste
Food waste affects not only the home — it impacts everyone — and with the high environmental, economic, and social costs associated with it, it begs the question: what is the United States doing to deal with it? There’s no single solution but a series of sensible approaches.
1. Government Policies
Government policies are very important. It often serves as foundation for the majority of positive actions that stakeholders will do to reduce food waste.
In 2015, in line with its objectives for the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the United States launched the Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal. The primary purpose is to decrease the percentage of food loss and waste by at least 50 percent within the next 15 years (or until 2030).
To do this, one of its to-dos is to work closely with various stakeholders that include but are not limited to farmers and ranchers, community gardeners, transporters, and retail markets that cover vendors, restaurants, and grocers.
Together with the government, each of the stakeholders then shares their opportunities to reduce food waste and loss. For example, during the manufacturing process, facilities may need to improve their standard procedures and mindset, treating excess food as a resource. Those involved in the logistics may also consider setting up local chains in every stage of the supply chain for storage.
The government and the various sectors also created the Food Recovery Hierarchy, which aims to determine priority actions from the most preferred to the least method of disposal. For example, for all participants, the food waste and loss goal should focus on source reduction, which is to limit the generated surplus food.
If organizations cannot avoid producing a surplus, the next step is to feed hungry people. It involves donating extra food to shelters, soup kitchens, and food banks. The least preferred option to reduce food waste is to place it in landfills or incinerators.
The hierarchy then becomes one of the guidelines for the Food Recovery Challenge, which businesses can sign up for. It’s an incentive program wherein those who meet the criteria can receive recognition from the EPA. The recognition can serve as the organization’s bragging rights, and receive tax breaks when they spearhead a food donation program. They can also receive technical assistance and support from the agency’s regional representative.
2. Apps and Organizations
Many organizations and businesses are also stepping up to decrease food waste. This is a response to the government’s 2030 reduction goal or as a personal agenda or the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR).
- Some are also leveraging technology to make information accessible and more immediate. These include mobile platforms like FoodforAll. It connects its subscribers to nearby restaurants that may have excess food. At the end of the day, before the establishment closes, Americans can purchase these meals at a discount.
- On the other hand, Flashfood addresses a common reason for food waste: the best-before date. As mentioned, the FDA has already made it clear that the date usually isn’t for safety but quality. Many types of food can still be consumed past the date provided it is stored properly or correctly.
More often than not, though, retailers make it a policy to throw away food that is past its best-before date. Flashfood tries to avoid that by selling goods near the date at a massive discount. It can even be as low as 50 percent.
- Transfernation is a B2B platform that works closely with events organizers and caterers. On many occasions, guests leave behind a lot of food, which could have gone to waste. Transfernation instead collects this surplus and distributes it to food banks and shelters.
- What about groceries? Giant Eagle was the first biggest supermarket in the country to have launched a program called “Produce with Personality”. Based on its name, the goal is to sell “ugly produce” (food with cosmetic imperfections) that is less likely to be picked by consumers at more “attractive prices,” including deeper discounts or promos.
- In 2016, Whole Foods partnered with Imperfect Produce, a company that sells ugly-produce subscription boxes directly to households. Over the years, similar business models appeared, including Hungry Harvest and Misfits Markets.
- Around the same year, Starbucks promised to send its excess or unused food to the needy. Via a program known as FoodShare, one of the world’s biggest coffee brands teamed up with organizations like Feeding America and Food Donation Connection, which will collect the food in Starbucks’ over 7,000 locations nationwide.
3. Sustainable-related Brands
Over the years, as consumers become more aware of the dire food loss and waste in the United States, their preferences and behavior have also begun to change. In 2019, an Accenture study showed that 50 percent of the respondents would be willing to pay more for sustainable products.
Moreover, over 70 percent were buying more environment-friendly goods than five years ago. At least 80 percent expected to purchase more for the next five years.
The report also suggests that consumers are also making businesses more accountable and participative. Almost 85 percent believed that it is extremely important or important that companies make sustainable products or those that can be either recycled or reused (or both).
This shift led to the appearance and growth of more sustainable-driven brands like Buffalo Market, which supports food companies with equally sustainable, ethical practices. These include Inked Organics, which bake various types of organic bread in small batches to avoid excess or overstocking.
Brands like Numi Organic Tea and Frontier National Products do not only sell high-quality, carefully sourced goods but also improve the utilization of resources need to produce or send them to markets and customers.
Frontier National Products offers carbon-neutral shipping while Numi Organic Tea processes its products in a facility run by solar energy. Both also buy renewable energy credits to help offset the carbon footprint they may generate at any point in the supply chain.
Since 1988, Organic Valley, a farmer-owned coop, collaborates with nearby farms to sell their organic dairy and meat products among its over 1,500 member farms. With this type of linkage, these highly perishable goods travel shorter distances, minimizing contamination along the way, reducing the need for longer refrigeration, and decreasing supply-chain costs such as fuel.
Food waste isn’t just a household problem. It is a pressing global issue rooted in a lot of causes, which include false perception and poor resource management.
Its impact isn’t limited to the several square feet of a home. Rather, it touches on climate change, land and water pollution, and even food insecurity that affects not only the United States but also the rest of the world.
But as they say, the first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it — and the country is taking notice and action. While more work needs to be done, as long as the concerned sectors work hand in hand, the United States can be on track in achieving its 2030 food waste and loss reduction goal. #endfoodwaste