Stepping up to the plate to reduce food waste

By Achim Steiner and Peter Lehner
September 20, 2013

How many times have you reached into the refrigerator, only to discover the yogurt or fruit juice you were looking forward to enjoying had passed its expiration date?

What next? Did you sling that yogurt into the trash? Pour the juice down the sink? You probably congratulated yourself on a lucky escape. After all, who knows what might have happened had you unwittingly consumed a food a few hours past its “sell by” date?

In fact, it’s likely you would never have noticed. Food date labels are typically unrelated to food safety. They are simply a manufacturer’s suggestions for “peak quality” and a shelf life they set by their own market standards. The dates don’t tell you when your food will spoil, nor do they indicate the safety of food.

A new date labels study released this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic reveals that this mass confusion imposes costs on consumers and businesses and leads to a staggering amount of waste. In America, we throw away 40 percent of the food we produce every year. That’s nearly half our food — $165 billion dollars’ worth — in the garbage, instead of in our stomachs. Nine out of ten of us discard food — and likely are convinced we need to go out and buy more — because of the mistaken belief that the “sell by” date has a food safety implication for ourselves or our family.

It’s estimated that 160 billion pounds of food is dumped in the United States annually, in part due to this labeling confusion. That’s almost enough wasted food to fill up a football stadium every day. Discarded food is the biggest single contributor to solid waste in landfills. We’re throwing away perfectly good food at a time when one in six Americans is considered “food insecure,” meaning that they struggle to put food on their tables year-round. Globally, 28 percent of the world’s farmland is being used to produce food that is not being eaten. That’s an area bigger than China.

This is a terrible waste, not just of the food itself, but of the resources that go into producing that food.

Consumer food waste is a developed-world problem. A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) revealed that 31 to 39 percent of food waste at retail and consumer levels occurs within the middle- and high-income areas of the world, compared to just 4 to 16 percent in developing nations

And the further along the food chain a product is wasted, the worse this becomes for the environment, because production, processing, packaging, transport, storage and cooking are likely to have already taken place.

Wasted food eats up our agricultural land, drinks up our freshwater and pollutes our atmosphere. And in a world with a rapidly-growing population, it also creates the potential for competition and conflict over valuable resources.

UNEP urges a “reduce, reuse, recycle” policy: reducing food waste, wherever possible, at every stage of the supply chain; reusing wasted food by distributing it to the needy, through food banks, for example; and recycling through composting rather than inefficient landfill.

None of this needs to be costly. UNEP has identified areas where significant savings can be made, and new economic opportunities can be grasped, in tackling this ongoing issue.

Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council is calling for the United States to catch up to the rest of the world in addressing food waste, starting with an overhaul of food labeling policy in the United States.

The date label that is most misinterpreted is the”sell by” date. This date is not intended for the consumer at all, but is a guide from manufacturers to help retailers manage stock rotation. NRDC recommends making “sell-by” dates invisible to consumers.

In their place should be a clear, consistent labeling system that provides useful guidance for consumers, and distinguishes between safety-based and quality-based dates. A standard storage and handling guide, akin to the nutrition information box on food products, would also be helpful.

But the onus must not entirely fall upon producers and retailers. Consumers need to play their part too. When it comes to tackling the $165 billion mountain of food waste that America produces every year, and the wastage globally, everyone needs to step up to the plate.

PHOTO: A cook throws away leftovers in the ‘Auf da Muehle’ restaurant in the western Austrian village of Soell June 2, 2013. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler

15 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Much of our consumer economy is based on profligate waste and massive pollution of all sorts. This isn’t new, except the consequences are staggering. The United States is contributing to turning our land and oceans into toxic cesspools. We’re killing ourselves and our food supplies and are apparently most are unaware. Mother Nature is already warning us. Gone unheaded, homo sapiens will give way to the next generations of bugs.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Of course, if the government tried to do something about this, it would likely not come out the way anyone wanted. Simple regulation would suffice, but is impossible to attain. To many extremist would get involved, screaming about big government and they are taking over our food supply! What a shame. How embarrassing for the once great USA. We’ve become the brainless USCA. It’s not embarrassed, it has no feelings.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Unmentioned is intentional “built-in” spoilage. Techniques of Pasteurization of our retail milk supplies virtually guarantee it will spoil on or almost immediately after the stamped=on “sell by” date”.

Anyone can see that the Lactose-free milk “sell by” date on displayed product has MUCH longer “shelf life” according to the than regular, low fat or fat free “normal” milk. Why the difference?

A “sweetheart deal” between organized milk producers (a monopoly) and those who regulate how “surplus milk” is held and distributed. If “honest” Pasteurization were mandatory for ALL milk, etc. much less waste in our schools, cafeterias, convenience stores and homes would occur.

Similar waste occurs intentionally because of the greed or “Big Pharma”. The “toss by” date of pharmaceuticals is almost always a year from the date of dispensing by a pharmacist. I’ll bet the large quantities pharmacies order have the real “dispense-by” date on them that the consumer never benefits from.

My wife takes Coumadin as a blood thinner (it’s also the active ingredient in rat poison). Know anyone that throws rat poison out if it’s out of date? I don’t take aspirin much, and so just realized my bottle expired in 2006. Works fine.

I’m not saying there are not valid limits, but only that they are not easily available to the average consumer from a trusted source. The manufacturer sells more product at full retail price the shorter the “sell date” and so their objectivity in designating such dates is obviously compromised by who signs the pay check of the “responsible person”.

I was amazed to discover several decades ago that there is no mandate or presumption in Contract Law that the parties will negotiate or deal with one another in good faith. There is no legal penalty when they don’t in most cases.

I’d like to know WHY that is the case with all the USELESS bureaus and bureaucrats on the payroll at the expense of “We, the people”. I’d really like to have SOMEONE genuinely accountable to “us” for using OUR MONEY in a manner that primarily benefits US!

Of course this is not likely since OUR Supreme Court has, over the last century or so, made it the “law of the land” that no judge can be held accountable to ANYONE for ANYTHING so long as they are deemed to “have jurisdiction” and they “act in his/her official capacity”.

If they act incompetently, i.e. employ the wrong stature, employ a statute clearly contrary to legislative intent, act with bias or actual malice, or (get this) for violate the MANDATORY Oath of Office required in virtually every state of such officials before they may take the bench, these “honorable” wearers of robes enjoy absolute judicial immunity from any and all responsibility for wrongful acts and financial damage resulting from same.

“We, the people” over that period have proved ourselves “we, the uninformed” or “we, the meek” by the ongoing acceptance of such absolute nonsense from those we pay A LOT to “see that our business is done RIGHT”. We are all Homer Simpson!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

At retailer part food waste is other side of abundance coin – and sanitary rules defend health of consumers at expense of energy waste and environment pollution. These rules are there for a reason – they’ve literally written in bodily fluids of previous generations, just read Bee Wilson’s “Swindled”.
And believe me, you don’t want to live in area where’s no food waste – as it means much lesser choice at best and deficit of foods at worst.

At consumer level – well, there’s level of education, experience and _conscience_ that defines food spoilage levels. Bein’ raised in deficit-ridden era in USSR i still feel guilty when something spoils in the fridge.

@OneOfTheSheep
Pharmaceuticals – there’s problem that most of drug don’t spoil in sense “instantly became dangerous or duds”, mostly after expiration date there’s steep dropping curve in active ingredient concentration – and active ingredients in rat poison are added in “cranked to eleven” proportion so even small dose is enough, while in medicine doses are already low enough (it’s poison, after all!) that significant drop will render drug ineffecient. And instruction saying “if you drug is over two years old, pop two pills instead of one” is a recepy for trouble (and lawsuits too).

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

Boss says: You must raise the profit margin at least 3% by the end of the next quarter.
MBA employee says : Yes sir.
MBA employee thinks : How am I going to do that? If I don’t, I’ll be the employee forever or worse yet, I’ll be sacked. If I could only make people buy more of it. If I change the sell by date, we’ll sell more and margins will go up. So if I add this ingredient that expires quickly, it will spoil the food faster, so I am justified in cutting the sell by date by a week. All I need to do now is get a bone head engineer to state that the change won’t kill anyone and I’m saved!

The problem is a fundamental one in the corporate American implementation of capitalism. If we address this issue intelligently, this and many, many other issues (like health care) will just seem to melt away.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

It’s interesting how the bottlers and canners of beer fill these containers with a fluid that contains a preservative – alcohol – that can survive without degrading for ten to twenty years, yet they have put one year expiration dates on the containers! The incredible arrogance and greed!

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

It’s interesting how the bottlers and canners of beer fill these containers with a fluid that contains a preservative – alcohol – that can survive without degrading for ten to twenty years, yet they have put one year expiration dates on the containers! The incredible arrogance and greed!

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

@tmc,

I think you oversimplify, just as the Supreme Court oversimplified something much more complex in saying that corporations are “people”. Nonetheless, “corporate” actions and inactions usually reflect the pursuit of adopted goals.

In some, the Board “calls the shots”; in others it is the shareholder/owners, or some combination thereof. There is a “collective interest” that cannot be ignored, and also a “collective responsibility” and “collective liability” when their actions are contrary to statute or applicable regulation.

Just as the wild mustang does no productive work, businesses must be harnessed by society to do what we would have them do. They have no “social obligation” whatsoever towards the society that spawns them, and so such functions must be devised and imposed from outside.

How does the “corporate American implementation” of capitalism different from that by the “mom and pop and the rest of the family” implementation under a sole proprietorship, partnership, or limited liability company (LLC)? The corporation is but one of a variety of business structures, no more or less uniquely suspect and “guilty by definition” or association than any other. Proportional to their capitalization and customer base, any of these can make political contributions or otherwise “lobby” to influence legislators or legislation in their favor.

I believe the overall “standard of living” and day-to-day comforts available to the great majority of Americans enjoy TODAY still superior to any other modern nation of realistic choice. America remains, as always, a “work in progress”; a mighty locomotive WE have built and OWN.

We may “trust” our elected representatives, leaders, agencies and bureaucrats to keep it moving on a “day-to-day” basis toward some fuzzy illusion of Utopia. But when they shirk on necessary maintenance or head it off the tracks it is for us to sound the alarm and remedy as necessary. In the end, WE COLLECTIVELY have far more at stake than any of THEM INDIVIDUALLY.

I continue to believe capitalism the ONLY recipe for the “bigger pie” that Americans have long worked harder, longer and smarter for than citizens of other countries. It is the excess thus created, a reasonable portion of which each such individual must be allowed to keep, that is responsible for the relative bounty of American life. To date no one has demonstrated a credibly superior alternative.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

The large amount of fresh food waste is a lose-lose situation for the environment, retailers and the struggling families in today’s tough economy. We should address the waste problem in every link in our food supply chain.
As an example, the excess inventory of perishable food items close to their expiration causes waste. Why not let the consumer perform the perishables rotation by offering him proper incentives?
There is a new GS1 DataBar global standard that enables an automatic incentive offering application for fresh food close to its expiration. This application encourages efficient consumer shopping behavior that maximizes grocery retailer revenue and makes fresh food affordable for all families while effectively reducing the global carbon footprint. I encourage food retailers to look into the GS1 DataBar emerging standard.
An example of an application (based on GS1 DataBar standard) that could help us win a battle in the food waste war is illustrated at EndGroceryWaste.com, and I would greatly appreciate your feedback.

Rod Averbuch,
Rod@EndGroceryWaste.com
Chicago, IL

Posted by EndGroceryWaste | Report as abusive

Glad I can still make you think a bit @OOTS.
How does the “corporate American implementation” of capitalism different from that by the “mom and pop and the rest of the family” implementation under a sole proprietorship, partnership” A LOT! Capitalism is not the problem. Virtually every country throughout history has some form of capitalism. Pure socialism never lasts and there are very few examples of it in history. It is the form of capitalism, the amount that as you say, it is “harnessed” that makes the difference. The national and global monsters that we have created have no collective ethics, no morals, and no humanity at all. They are actually designed to eliminate those things. No one has responsibility or accountability for what they do. This allows a corporation to do reprehensible things on a regular basis. The mom & pop shop, sole proprietor, partnership “small to medium business” or SMBs as the MBAs like to call them, are truly people. They conduct business with responsibility and accountability. True, some do not. But they don’t move a chemical plant to a country that has no regulations when they know it kills people. Dow Chemicals does. My mothers best friend just retired and had to move to another town because as CEO of a small plastic extrusion company, she could not stomach the devastation to the town when she was forced to move it to china. The townsfolk hated her. She could not walk down the street or go to her church anymore. She didn’t want to do it, but all of her competitors did, so she had to either move it, or lose it.
By the way @OOTS, did you see the article on the Pope and his opinion of what the American capitalism has become? http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/2 2/us-pope-economy-idUSBRE98L04H20130922
Just because some good comes from their evil, it does not condone or make evil right.
Corporations are NOT people. They are designed NOT to be. They are trying to convince you they are by SPIN in their language, lying in “people” language, so they can destroy your smaller company.
The USA has perished. The USCA has taken over.
Support the Liberty Amendments and take back our country.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@tmc,

I read the article on the Pope’s latest pronouncements, and believe him a good man frustrated, as are many, with the world wide exploding unemployment issue. The frustration, denial, and anger he and they express do nothing to identify and address the two “real problems”, which are (1) too many people for our earth to support with it’s finite resources and (2) an ever-increasing number of them with no “place or function” in ever more efficient commerce.

Money is not a “God, any more than air, or “the weather”. It’s flow is poorly comprehended but the effects of such flow are apparent to one and all. When understood, money or weather can be as useful a tool as fire. Each is almost unlimited in it’s capacity to make life better or worse. These potent forces must be properly focused and controlled, or “harnessed” to such ends are are mutually and collectively deemed desirable.

When we know no better, we can to start with those effects which are relatively obvious; and, therefore predictable. If we use these to make our society better and stronger, each successful manipulation should reveal more and more worthwhile possibilities to explore.

Commerce and capitalism are two sides of the same coin. And coin, or money, is merely an irresistable carrot that induces people to get off their fat, comfortable butts and do something.

It is NOT for “corporations” or business of any construct to create the incentives that will put day-to-day commerce “in the trenches” to create the mutually supportive society necessary for a better, more secure future for ALL! This is perhaps the single legitimate function of federal, state and local government, and a vital responsibility that has largely been abdicated.

“We, the people” must step forward and elect representatives with vision that have the backbone and conviction to prioritize and employ our huge resources to this end. Today these resources are being wasted buying votes and “job security” by and for our politicians. The failure and dysfunction of today’s “government” is a OUR failure. It is a continuing one because we keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.

The economists of today are where doctors were before WW II, where much of what they “knew” was wrong and no one knew which half. Medical knowledge is advancing at a rate unprecedented and the cost of medical care in a modern society is yet to be “put in it’s place”.

Nonetheless, the first modern human who could live to an age of one thousand may have already been born. Looking at our thousands of years of recorded history, is it not obvious that we do not need MORE AND MORE people but BETTER AND BETTER people?

All countries who embrace a “culture of life” are increasingly facing a challenge none have solved. Even if they can feed that part of their population that has NOTHING TO DO but fornicate (and many cannot), they have yet to find a way to “employ” such “resource” such that an economic burden becomes an economic asset. Nothing less than world peace depends on resolving this challenge. If it were easy it would have been done long ago.

The single obvious method to prevent even more future misery is for governments to introduce contraceptives into the water supply the world over because our present “herd” is more than available “pasture” can support. Before the current “economic miracle” was possible for China “understood” and implemented it’s “one child” policy to buy the necessary time for progressive reform.

How do societies turn their uneducated, their unskilled, their unmotivated who have NO land, money or productive place in their society into a positive economic asset? The sole such effort I am aware of in America to do this was the WPA, and WW II ended the economic conditions that made it necessary long before whether that would have been a long term success or failure could be known.

But our WPA was only possible at a time of soup kitchens and widespread economic insufficiency and want. We live in a world utterly different from the 1930s. Fully a third of our young people are too fat, too stupid or otherwise to qualify for acceptance into our armed forces.

Today with our Fed’s printing presses running 24/7 spewing out countless “dollars” (that each debase those existing before and purchase NOTHING of value), we have created an exploding “underclass” of the “poor” that drive, have flat screen TVs and cable TV, and cell phones and would live in relative comfort and security were it not that they prey on themselves out of sheer boredom.

Their children get free school lunches (year round), free vaccinations, are bussed to schools. Yet not only do they refuse to meaningfully participate in our public educational process, but they mock those who do and openly and repeatedly disrupt and dilute that process.

These individuals are being indoctrinated day-by-day, week-by-week, month after month and year after year that society owes them a living and they need do NOTHING in return. Until we change that, how do we get this “counter-culture” off it’s butts and out doing something productive for society?

Rome staged massive “games” to keep it’s people’s attention diverted from political mischief. Today that entertainment is provided by TV and people need not leave the comfort of their homes. It’s not working, and discontent is rising. Rome, too, fell.

For the unemployed fifty-year old machinist, the teacher that can’t teach, the graduate who can’t get their first job (and leave home) we need HONEST programs that train and place…that change square pegs to fit round holes. While, in the long term, society needs fewer and fewer to do what must be done, today much that society NEEDS (such as getting trash off our roads and updating or expanding our infrastructure) is simply being ignored.

We don’t need “Survivor” or “Wheel of Fortune” winners. We need people who can fiigure out how to break down useless trash into reusable resources at a cost competitive with continuing to rape the earth. We don’t need more football or basketball teams, but we do need “big brothers” who can and will teach the disadvantaged or illiterate skills they need to “succeed”.

We need to get these people to comprehend what it means to be a valued member of a productive society and the qualities they must develop and offer to be part of that. How can they do that so long as they have no respect for honest work or those that perform it? If they are not willing to “show up” reliably and pull their weight without being asked or told to they can not change who they are. If most do not change who they are, they are not moving forward toward a productive life, but to JAIL! They need both the carrot and the stick.

It is not the dreams of the few and the lofty that will transform life for the multitudes, but hope. Not the useless illusion of hope unrealistic, but the hope that comes from individual effort “invested” with reasonable efficiency pursuing worthy and reasonable collective goals.

These need to be broken down such that each can see the results of their contribution, for the confidence and pride that comes from success can supercharge any process. For every pyramid that can be constructed by beating slaves, two or three can be constructed by proper organization and motivation and then those “in charge” just getting out of the way!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Wow, another great Op-Ed by @OOTS. Reuters is getting an extra columnist for free! I’d love to respond again but it’s late and I’ve been working all night. And beside, scanning thru it seems we once again are in agreement, just in different tones.
Thanks @OOTS.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

This article is really a joke to mask the presence and the location on the PNUD in Kenya at Nairobi. Was is the meaning of a debate on the wastes at the moment where take place one of the biggests islamist attack ever happening inside a Nairobi’s mall?

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

The problem is not in our food industry…it’s in our legal system. This article is correct in that “sell by” and “use by” dates are pretty much meaninless, but it’s wrong on why they’re there. The ONLY reason those labels are on food products to protect food manufactures from getting sued by our “sue happy” society for trying to sell inferior/spoiled products to consumers.

Posted by RD137 | Report as abusive

All ideas for reducing food waste are important. This includes better labeling, as well as less wasteful food practices in homes and restaurants.

Remember that economic effects are found at the margins. A five percent reduction in food purchases would be statistically significant. (It would be a two-standard deviations effect.) That marginal change would be enough to put downward pressure on food pricing, and such downward pressure would make food more available to those who, at the margin, are finding it difficult to obtain enough food.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive