National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

Americans haven't quite picked up on the wisdom of waste not, want not.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Aug. 20 issued updated food availability (per capita consumption)  numbers for various food groups.The data includes preliminary loss-adjusted per capita data through 2010.

The USDA's "loss-adjusted" food availability is of particular note, and the topic of the data  relates to a recent report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council headlined "America trashes forty percent of food supply." The 26-page issue paper can be found here

From the press release:

NRDC’s issue brief – Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm To Fork to Landfill – analyzes the latest case studies and government data on the causes and extent of food losses at every level of the U.S. food supply chain. It also provides examples and recommendations for reducing this waste. Key findings include: 

  • Americans trash 40 percent of our food supply every year, valued at about $165 billion;
  • The average American family of four ends up throwing away an equivalent of up to $2,275 annually in food;
  • Food waste is the single largest component of solid waste in U.S. landfills;
  • Just a 15 percent reduction in losses in the U.S. food supply would save enough food to feed 25 million Americans annually;
  • There has been a 50 percent jump in U.S. food waste since the 1970s.

The causes of losses in our food system are complex, but there are notable problem areas. At the retail level, grocery stores and other sellers are losing as much as $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and vegetables alone, with about half of the nationwide supply going uneaten. In fact, fresh produce is lost more than any other food product — including seafood, meat, grains and dairy — at nearly every stage in the supply chain. Some of this is avoidable. For instance, retailers can stop the practice of unnecessary abundance in their produce displays, which inherently leads to food spoilage.

So the unnecessary abundance of produce displays is one of the problems? I've never heard that one before.

Written by Dana Gunders, the report's source data appears to rely on the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. According to the FAO, 20% of fruits and vegetables produced in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia are lost at the production level, 3% in post-harvest handling and storage, 1% in process and packaging, 12% at retail and a whopping 28% at the consumer level. That's hardly leaves anything left for the fruit bowl, it seems.

The USDA report cited earlier is also grim on the subject of produce waste, citing 68% in total losses at all levels for fresh oranges,  94% for cantaloupe and a relatively respectable 39% for fresh apples.

What's the solution? Here are some ideas from the report on how cut waste at the farm level:

  • A farmer who saw that 70 percent of his carrots were going to waste because of irregular shape or size decided to sell “baby carrots.” After cutting the irregular carrots small, he was able to sell them for $.50 per pound compared with $.17 per pound for regular-sized carrots.
  • Farmer’s markets, which have more than doubled in number in the past 10 years,  are allowing growers to sell good-quality products that might not meet size, shelf life, or other criteria
    imposed by retailers.
  • California recently passed a bill allowing growers to receive a tax credit for donations of excess produce to state food banks, joining Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado.


 This NRDC report strikes the "we can do better" tone with several suggestions, from the release:

The U.S. government should conduct a comprehensive study of losses in our food system and set national goals for waste reduction. This may require steps such as clarifying date labels on food, encouraging food recovery, and improving public awareness about ways to waste less. State and local governments can also lead by setting similar targets.

Businesses should seize opportunities to streamline their own operations, reduce food losses and save money. The Stop and Shop grocery chain is already doing this successfully, saving an estimated $100 million annually after an analysis of freshness, loss, and customer satisfaction in their perishables department. Others should follow suit.

Consumers can waste less food by shopping wisely, knowing when food goes bad, buying produce that is perfectly edible even if it’s less cosmetically attractive, cooking only the amount of food they need, and eating their leftovers.

Europe is leading the way in reducing food waste. In January 2012, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to reduce food waste 50 percent by 2020, and designated 2014 as the “European year against food waste.” In the U.K., an extensive five-year public awareness campaign called “Love Food Hate Waste” has contributed to an 18 percent reduction in avoidable food waste. And 53 of the leading U.K. food retailers and brands have adopted waste reduction resolutions.


“No matter how sustainably our food is farmed, if it’s not being eaten, it is not a good use of resources,” said Gunders. “Fortunately, there are ways to tackle the food waste problem, and everyone can play a role.”


When all the other solutions are worked out, retailers may want to tone down the "unnecessary abundance" of produce displays as well.

All kidding aside, how can the industry work to reduce waste? Are mandates for waste reduction the solution? What's the "payoff" for relaxing cosmetic standards if consumers shun ugly produce? What are tangible actions that the supply chain can take to reduce fruit and vegetable waste?