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The American Home and Food Waste

Posted in Food Insecurity,Food Policy,Food Safety on February 15, 2019

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Americans individually discard more than 400 pounds of food each and every year. In 2017, more than 78 million tons (yes, millions) of food was thrown away nationwide. No one truly likes to waste food. We may not even be conscious of the fact that we do it. I can remember, as a child, being chided to “Eat what’s on your plate…there are starving children in China, and piping back, “Okay then, send this to them”. That response was usually not met with what I had wanted. But, in our adult reality, the difficulty with wasting food is that it pokes at our conscience, prompting us to review our beliefs and the economic impracticality of discarding food. But, what is Food Waste?

A Brief Definition of Food Waste

Food waste is distinct from food loss. Food loss refers to the “decrease in edible food mass throughout the part of the supply chain that leads to edible food for human consumption” (Parfitt et al., 2010). Food loss can occur at various stages: production, post-harvest, and processing. By contrast, food waste relates to retailer and/or consumer behavior that leads to edible products meant for human consumption being discarded. Some of the following reasons for food waste in the American household are:

  • Leftovers – Too much food has been prepared and/or put on the plate.
  • Partially Used Food – Includes food not used and also leftovers that usually end up at the back of the fridge and are never reused.
  • Exceeds Use By Date – Primarily applies to dairy, meat, and fish which were not used in time.
  • Exceeds Best Before Date – Primarily applies to bread and other foods in the pantry.
  • Change of Plans – This can and does happen, but it helps to use the food you were planning to cook as quickly as possible.
  • Not Prepared to Expectations – Yes, it’s possible that the meal you imagined just didn’t turn out as planned or taste as good!

In an effort to provide a worldwide definition framework for comparing food loss to food waste, the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme has defined food waste as “food appropriate for human consumption being discarded, whether or not after it is kept beyond its expiration date or is left to spoil. Often this is because food has spoiled but it can be for other reasons such as oversupply due to markets, or individual consumer shopping/eating habits.”

Food Labels and Expiration Dates

Many people are vigilant about checking their refrigerators and pantries for spoiled foods. However, there is sometimes confusion about the various dates that are stamped onto food products. To simplify, a “best if used by/before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a safety-related date. A “sell-by” date tells the store/retailer how long the product should be displayed. Again, this is not a safety date. A “use-by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. This, too, is not a safety date, unless it is infant formula. Therefore, many of the stamped dates are indicative of food quality.

According to the NRDC, all those labels are confounding us as consumers. Ninety percent of Americans misinterpret the dates on labels. This results in an astounding forty percent of our food being tossed because of this confusion. Many consumers are unaware that the food labels are used by manufacturers to indicate when the product is at its peak for best flavor. For that reason, it does not convey when food will expire in the sense of being inedible. It just means that the oats in your granola bar may lose their crunch, or your favorite berry-flavored beverage may lose its vibrant red color. It may not look as good, but it’s still safe to eat. Additionally, expiration dates on food products do not indicate how safe the food is to consume. It’s a fallacy that these dates are related to food poisoning or the risk of foodborne illness. The distinction lies in that foodborne illnesses are due to contaminants infiltrating food, usually during the harvesting or production stage.

And as for expiration dates, those can be puzzling as well. Meat, dairy, and eggs do not have federally regulated expiration dates, but obviously they have shorter shelf lives. In essence, trust your nose and your taste buds to determine if a food has spoiled. Again, foodborne illnesses are derived from contamination, not decay, but it is essential that you keep your perishables at the proper temperatures. When it comes to the bacteria Listeria, it thrives in warmer temperatures. Additionally, a good rule of thumb is to throw out a perishable food after two hours at room temperature. Keep all food preparation surfaces clean, and separate food to avoid cross-contamination of raw meat and other grocery items. Always follow good food handling and storage practices that prevent unnecessary food spoilage. For every conceivable food product, follow this link for an excellent app that lists storage recommendations for almost every conceivable kind of food product:

Food Waste is a Social, Economic, and Environmental Problem

In 2013, 48 million Americans were food insecure at some time during that year; food insecure being defined as “when a person is unable to obtain a sufficient amount of healthy food on a day-to-day basis. “ (Cunningham, 2013). With the world population expected to increase by two billion people by 2050, this raises the question of how to adequately provide nutritious food to a significant portion of the human race, especially when presented with the fact that Americans, along with most industrialized nations, waste so much food.

Additionally, the economic and environmental impact of food waste is inextricably linked. The NRDC estimates that 40% of all food (approximately $165 billion worth) is discarded. This is in the United States alone. American expectation for fresh, nutritious food has compelled food harvesters as well as retailers to discard thousands of tons of otherwise edible food because it was felt that the food was not visually appealing to consumers. Add to this the considerable cost of water, fertilizer, and land that is used to produce food that is never eaten. Fuel is burned for processing, refrigeration, and transportation. Greenhouse gases are emitted in the amount of 3.3 billion tons, and food waste that is left to decay emits methane, also a greenhouse gas.

The Benefits of Reducing Food Waste

In conjunction with the economic, social, and environmental factors mentioned above, there are definitive benefits to reducing wasted food:

  • Save money by purchasing less food
  • Reduce methane emissions from landfills containing discarded and decaying food
  • Conserve energy and environmental resources by reducing the amount of pollution produced in the manufacture and transportation of food
  • Effect community involvement and support by donating untouched food to various organizations that provide services to those that do not have a steady food supply

By: Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)