Food Loss and Waste Throughout the Food System

Food waste makes no sense economically, environmentally or ethically. Forty percent of food produced in the U.S. is never even consumed. Getting food to our table eats up fifty percent of U.S. Land, ten percent of the total U.S. Energy Budget, and it swallows eighty percent of the Fresh Water in the U.S.

Resources Used

The forty percent of wasted food costs us:

  • • $165 Billion per year
  • • Twenty five percent of US water use
  • • Fifteen percent of US methane production
  • • Four percent of US oil consumption

Where in the Food System is Food Loss Occurring

These losses occur in every step of the food system from the loss on the farm to the loss from consumers. Specifically these areas are broken down into:

  • • Production losses
  • • Post-harvest handling and storage losses
  • • Processing and Packaging losses
  • • Distribution and retail losses
  • • Consumer Losses

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Production Losses

The food system is a complex system where there are complexities beyond simple supply demand or quality control scenarios. Imagine trying to predict the future... What will the market look like by the next harvest? What issues might the crop face this season? What happens if the predictions made are completely wrong? Although many of these conditions are unpredictable there are many suggestions that can be made for dealing with surplus as well as other issues. Two major losses on the farm happen when food is never harvested and when food is lost between harvest and sale.

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Post-Harvest Losses

The NRDC gives three examples of helping with reducing harvest waste:

  • Farmer's markets allow good quality products, that may not meet the criteria set by retails, to make its way to consumers.
  • In Arizona, California, Colorado and Oregon now allows growers to receive a tax credit for donating produce to state food banks.
  • Culling is responsible for the majority of the losses during post-harvest. Culling is a quality control process, removing product for visual defects etc. One farmer was throwing away 70 percent of their carrots due to quality control issues. They turned to baby carrots and were able to increase the cost per pound of the crop in addition to the great reduction of waste.

In some cases due to the value of the crop at current market conditions, the crop may not even get harvested. These types of losses can be achieved in the post-harvest stage with a combination of gleaning and something that the Farm to Family program in California calls concurrent picking which is very similar to gleaning.

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Processing Losses

It is estimated that 39 percent of food loss happens at the manufacturing stage. Some manufactures have seen great progress by getting rid of intermediate stages, such as multiple packaging stages.

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Distribution Losses

Rejected shipments, in many cases, are so plentiful that local food banks may not have enough capacity to take them in. There are other ideas which include online systems to post or find rejected product, as well as increasing employee training and proper maintenance of distribution vehicles.

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Retail Losses

Food Waste Food waste has become a part of doing business in retail. Overstocking product displays, meeting the expectation of cosmetic perfection, and expired sell by dates are just some of the contributing factors.

As a solution, some retailers are putting up bargain shelves, using ethylene absorbing materials, removing sell by dates and educating consumers. Another issue that is wide spread is the inconsistency of dated labels. Most of the time the date isn't a "consume by" date. The dates range from sell by, to packaged and sometimes there is no context at all and simply a date. Consistency and education is greatly needed in food labeling.

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Food Service Losses

Food service covers a very broad spectrum including restaurants, cafeterias and fast food. The losses here include losses in the kitchen, excessively large portions, uneaten leftovers and extensive menus.

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Household Losses

An average family of four will throw away up to $2,275.00 worth of food annually. Similar to food service losses, the lose can happen before, during and after preparation. Some of the major problems contributing to food loss in the hame are very simple ones, confusing label dates, impulse/bulk purchases and over-preparation. One simple change would be to bring some consistency to use by dates as well as basic consumer education. Consumer education comes on multiple fronts from buying and storage habits to food preparation. For example one consumer buying change would be to encourage consumers to buy smaller amounts of food more frequently.

Referenced Material from:
NRDC Issue Paper from August 2012
Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfil