Aug. 22, 2012 at 2:42 PM ET
Mom was onto something. Americans are not cleaning their plates. Instead, they are tossing away 40 percent of their meals – “essentially every other piece of food that crosses our path” – or the equivalent of $2,275 a year for a family of four, according to a new report.
Food waste has swelled by 50 percent since the 1970s in this country. A total $165 billion annually in leftovers gets trashed by homeowners and in unsold or unused perishables or scraps dumped by grocers or restaurants, according to research compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council released Tuesday.
“Given the drought, rising food prices, and increased food demands we’re looking at as the population grows, having a more efficient food system is going to be a critical step – but also one of the lowest hanging fruit (in terms of a solution),” said Dana Gunders, the study’s author and a project scientist at NRDC, a nonprofit environmental group.
“Everyone has a role to play in reducing food waste,” Gunders said. “This is just something that’s really flown under our radar. As a country, we just haven’t been thinking about this. But it’s one of the easiest things we can do to reduce our environmental footprint.”
Ironically, the food squandering findings come just as a new Gallup poll shows that nearly one in five Americans say they haven’t had enough money to buy groceries on some days during the past 12 months.
At the same time, a record drought baking half the country will help drive food prices 3 to 4 percent higher next year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Much of the waste is fueled by food companies and grocery chains that oversell and overstock. Also to blame are consumers who over-purchase - packing their shopping carts and refrigerators with far more than they need after being tempted by buy-one-get-one-free deals that often include short, shelf-life items like milk and produce, the NRDC reports.
“Food companies are businesses just like any other, and so they want to sell as much of their product as possible,” Gunders said. “Where it’s different is that their product is sometimes perishable. So selling more of it in one go can lead to overbuying. But I also want to be careful about villianizing the food industry because I don’t think that’s fair.”
An alliance of food industry leaders, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in 2011 announced a three-year initiative to cut the massive amount of food that Americans discard. The program aims to slash the quantity of food that winds up in landfills. Simultaneously, it would boost donations to groups that feed the hungry. The initiative is co-chaired by General Mills and Publix.
“There is no bigger opportunity for our industry to simultaneously address hunger in America and our environmental footprint than by reducing the amount of food sent to landfills by diverting food to food banks and food waste to beneficial alternatives like compost,” said Ginny Smith, senior director of communications for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food-making companies such as Kraft, Hershey and Coca-Cola.
The NRDC found that trimming waste in the U.S. food supply by only 15 percent would save enough edible goods to feed 25 million Americans annually.
The NRDC said its conclusions are based on a review of existing literature – including a 2009 report by the National Institutes of Health on U.S. caloric intake versus calories in the American food pipeline – as well as interviews with farmers and many people in the food industry.
To begin attacking the problem, America could look to the United Kingdom which has launched several measures and campaigns to keep more of its food on the table and out of the trash, Gunders said.
"We need to treat food a little bit differently when it comes non-perishables, and find other (kinds of retail) promotions," Gunders said. "In the U.K., some companies have been experimenting. Instead of using buy-one-get-one-free promotions, like for gallons of milk, you buy one and get another one free later, or they offer a buy-one-give-one, where you buy a food item and have the store donate another item of food to the needy."
In investigating the scope of the food-waste problem in that country, British researchers have actually pawed through consumers' trash to gauge how much bread, bananas and butter is mashed into the discarded papers, bottles and cans. In the U.K. the government also has worked to standardize expiration dates on food and beverage products. Many British grocers have stopped including those dates - often merely a tool to help store clerks stock their shelves with the older products out front. Instead, they use codes to help organize their goods. And if dates are included, they are truly meant to reflect when the food item is no longer healthy to eat or drink.
"In the United States, we see them as safety dates but they’re actually not safety dates. And these dates are not regulated federally for the most part," Gunders said. "They are meant to indicate the manufacturers’ suggestion for peak quality rather than anything that would indicate the food is actually going bad. So a lot of people just throw it out after that date, not understanding that."
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