How food gets wasteda

Just because a carrot is misshapen, does that mean it’s bad? If a tomato has a spot on it or is not perfectly round, should it automatically be thrown out? If meat is labelled with a sell by date of yesterday, should that make it destined for the dumpster? According to most consumers and grocery stores, the answer is a resounding yes.

If you think about it, it’s a funny phenomenon, insisting that your food is “perfect” and “pretty” before you eat it. Believing that a sell by date means the same thing as an expiration date. Because a can of soup is dented means it’s no longer desirable. At what point did we as a society become so consumed with cosmetically perfect produce? When did a dented can or bent cereal box make the food contained within it unacceptable? How are consumers supposed to make sense of the arbitrary and inconsistent labelling system on foods, which started back in the 1970s? The bottom line is we are in the midst of a global food waste crisis. We’re going to explore four main causes to this crisis, and look at what can be done to help reverse these alarming trends.

Manufacturer and grocery store waste

A huge percentage of waste is happening at this point. Between food wasted in the growing/harvesting/prep stage and the amount thrown away in grocery stores, the numbers are staggering. produced a great infographic that encapsulates the problem (you can see the infographic below). Here are just a few of the highlights:

  • 4 billion tons of food is wasted, globally, each year
  • 3 billion tons of food is lost in the production cycle annually
  • 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S, goes to waste
  • Wasted food uses up 25 percent of all freshwater in the U.S. and 300 million barrels of oil
  • It costs $750 million/year to dispose of all the wasted food
  • The waste results in 33 million tons of landfill waste

[box type=”note” icon=”none”]What can be done about it?

Even though millions of pounds of food ends up in dumpsters every day, there’s starting to be a change. Some of the largest grocery chains in the U.S. are implementing food donation programs, donating the items that are no longer on their shelves to food banks or charities. This includes stores like Ralph’s, Safeway, even Walmart (finally giving in to years of pressure over their amount of waste). Composting is becoming more common, although this still doesn’t address the actual amount of waste.

We have to continue to educate consumers. It’s an uphill battle to fight the marketing and the pressure to believe that you have to buy only perfect apples and the roundest, reddest tomatoes. Store displays are getting flashier and savvier, the layout and design of supermarkets is a science now, all in an attempt to make us part with the most money by the time we get to the checkout lane. The more we can educate about the amount of waste and the impact that has, the better off we’ll be. The change has to come from the consumer. We have to be the ones demanding a reduction or end to waste.

Earlier this year France made it illegal for grocery stores to throw away edible food, instead forcing them to give it away to those who need it most. Two Canadian grocery store chains agreed to sell imperfect produce at a 30 percent discount. Across the U.S., dedicated dumpster divers continue to draw attention to the vast amount of waste by grocery stores and restaurants. It comes down to building awareness and being willing to make a change, both on the national level and in our own homes.

Consumer waste

Going back to the infographic on food waste, we learn that in the U.S., the average person throws away an average of about 230 lbs. of edible food each year. Whether we become dazzled by the colourful displays and aggressive marketing campaigns or we overestimate our own cooking intentions or abilities, way too much food is thrown out each year in our own homes. Does that make us any better than the grocery stores?

[box type=”note” icon=”none”]What can be done about it?

This is the easiest place to start controlling waste. Really, you can start today, right now, in your own kitchen. By only purchasing the food that you know you’re going to eat, you’ll be able to dramatically cut down on the amount of food thrown out each year. By shopping smart and planning meals and snacks, you’ll virtually eliminate that mystery bag of produce left rotting in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.

We can educate ourselves about labelling (which we’ll talk more about in a moment), and better understand how long the food we purchase will still be good and safe to eat. Meat that approaches its expiration before you’ll be able to eat it can be frozen.

There’s one more trick we can use, and it may seem silly to some, but it’s a proven method. Shop with a shopping list. Bring your list, whether it’s hastily written in eyeliner on a napkin or neatly arranged by aisle on your smartphone. Shop to your list and sticking to the items you know you’re going to use will help cut down on impulse purchases or on buying things that you’ll never get around to eating before they go bad (are you really going to make a rhubarb pie for the first time by the weekend?). And if the bananas do go brown? That’s when they’re best in baking recipes.

Ugly produce tells us that 30 percent of the food harvested on farms goes to waste because of trimming, quality standards and just plain being ugly and unsightly. There’s a sort of dichotomy of trends happening now in produce. There’s the prevalence of larger super-sized supermarkets with glamorous produce sections, complete with misting systems, mood lighting and careful colourful displays showcasing only the best specimens of fruits or vegetables. It’s a feast for your eyes, that’s for sure.

On the other end of the spectrum are the champions of the ugly and misshapen produce: the two-legged carrot, the bumpy potato and the oddly shaped onion. There are restaurants that are serving meals consisting of the otherwise scorned food. Smaller grocery stores that specialize in ugly produce are popping up.

[box type=”note” icon=”none”]What can be done about it?

Ugly produce is starting to have its time to shine. More and more we’re hearing about the plight of ugly or overripe produce and are welcoming it into our homes. Consumer attitudes are shifting. Farmers are selling less-than-prime produce at a discount, allowing them to earn on the crop rather than just discarding it. New restaurants are spotlighting and embracing ugly produce. Food & Wine Magazine’s editor, Dana Cowin, refers to an “ugly food movement,” even raising awareness with a #LoveUglyFood campaign. The bottom line is it’s about all of us shifting our mindset. It’s about continued pressure on stores to not focus on perfection at the sacrifice of waste.

Arbitrary labelling

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “[We do] not require food firms to place ‘expired by,’ ‘use by,’ or ‘best before’ dates on food products. This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.” What officially began in 1973 as a way to give consumers a sense of freshness and shelf life because they no longer grew their own food has morphed into a patchwork of laws, labels, and dates, most of which are intended for the seller, not the consumer. That’s right, most of the date labelling is to let the seller manage shelf life and stock. In the U.S., the only food item across the board that’s required to have a visible use by label is infant formula.

Labels are confusing. Sure, there are people who disregard the whole labelling system and judge whether an item is consumable by the actual appearance, consistency, taste or smell. But there are others who deem the label as the end-all, be-all and will automatically throw out a product on the date shown, whether it is a sell by date or expiration date.

[box type=”note” icon=”none”]What can be done about it?

Consumers can start by educating themselves on labelling standards and laws. We can learn the differences between sell by, best if used by and expiration dates. This will help us distinguish between when manufacturers want stores to move products off the shelf vs. when they actually are no longer safe to consume.

Consumers and advocates can continue to push for uniform labelling standards, furthering the efforts of groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. They’re proposing a sweeping change to the labelling system to make it easier for consumers to understand packaging dates. Among other things, they want to substitute the labelling we now have: “best by,” “sell by,” “best if used by,” “expires on,” with the easier to understand: “safe if used by,” “peak quality guaranteed before,” or “best within xx days of opening.” Manufacturers could even integrate technology into the labelling in the form of QR codes that could be scanned by consumers, giving them more precise information right on their smartphones.

The amount of food wasted every day around the globe is staggering. But it’s a trend that can be reversed or at least slowed down. It will take a tremendous collective effort, but the base change is going to start with the individual consumer continuing to make noise, calling for a new era.

Food waste facts infographic