Go Home Food, You’re Wasted: What You May Not Know About Food Waste in the U.S.

In the last several years, I, like many others, have become increasingly aware of and concerned with the issue of food waste.  In 2014 (the most recent published data), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that, of the 136 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) sent to landfills that year, food was the largest component, accounting for over 21 percent of the total landfilled MSW.  The total MSW landfilled by material in 2014 breaks down like this:

Image credit: EPA: Advancing Sustainable Materials Management Fact Sheet

Americans generated 38.4 million tons of food waste in 2014—accounting for almost 15% of total MSW generated that year.  While people did compost more that year than years past, this practice only took care of 5.1 percent of the food waste that would otherwise end up in landfills or incinerators.  Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) estimates that in 2010, 133 billion pounds of the 430 billion pounds (31%) of food that Americans produced was not eaten).

The numbers are staggering.  Not only does this waste amount to an enormous economic loss (the USDA estimated the total value of wasted food at the retail and consumer levels in the United States at $161.6 billion in 2010) and nutritional loss (per day, an estimated 387 billion calories of food were not available for human consumption in 2010), but it also contributes to the addition of greenhouse gases (particularly, methane) to our environment, as food decomposes in landfills. Not to mention the energy wasted in growing, harvesting and shipping this food. Broken down by each food group, the USDA estimated the number of calories of food loss per day in 2010:

Image credit: USDA Economic Research Service

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: I hate wasting food.  While throwing food in the trash certainly hurts my pocketbook, it’s the environmental impact that affects me the most.  I don’t claim to be perfect or waste-free by any means, but this is one thing that just sticks with me, because I know I can control it.  I wage my own personal war on keeping the food I buy out of landfills by preparing most of my meals at home, being conscious about not over-buying (even though all of the fare at my local farmers market looks so beautiful!), being diligent and creative about using up the perishable items before they go to waste, relying mostly on the “sight” and “smell” tests for spoilage rather than solely on the sell-by or use-by dates, and composting whatever is left over (hello Healthy Soil Compost!).  Many of these practices are actually endorsed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as ways individuals can minimize food waste.

In fact, many U.S. regulatory bodies, including the FDA, have started initiatives for businesses and individuals to help reach the national food waste reduction goal – to reduce food waste by 50% by the year 2030.  The 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction goal was announced by the EPA and USDA on September 16, 2015, in alignment with Target 12.3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, marking the first ever domestic goal to reduce food loss and waste by 50% in 15 years. The goal aims “to help feed the hungry, save money for families and businesses and protect the environment.”

Food waste is a multi-layer problem that occurs at every step of the food industry— on the farm and with packers, processors, distributors, and retailers. Some of it is the result of economic forces, and some is caused simply by dumping products that are less than perfect in appearance.  Fruits and vegetables with cosmetic or superficial imperfections (think: the crooked butternut squash, a carrot with two tips, small or wind-scarred avocados)grow all the time on the farm.  Many retail grocery chains routinely reject this “ugly” yet perfectly edible and nutritious produce simply because it doesn’t meet the industry’s impossibly high cosmetic standards.  And, let’s face it, we’ve all been trained to seek out perfect, uniform, blemish-free produce at the grocery store.

It’s hard to know exactly how much produce ends up as waste in this country due to unsightliness, because the USDA doesn’t track it. ReFED, a coalition of 30 businesses, nonprofits and foundations that seeks to reduce food waste, published a report estimating that approximately 10 million tons of cosmetically imperfect or unharvested food are lost each year at the farm and packing-house level.  ReFED reports that “nearly all” of the produce that goes unsold each year from farms and on-farm packinghouses due to cosmetic imperfections “is composted on-site or left to be tilled into the soil where it enhances soil health similarly to compost.”

Unsurprisingly, as part of its tips to reduce food waste, the FDA advocates that consumers “purchase ‘ugly’ fruits or vegetables that often get left behind at the grocery store but are safe to eat,” reiterating that “ugly” produce is “safe and nutritious.”  In general, browning, bruising, scarring, and odd sizing, coloring or shape, like some of the imperfections shown below, do not affect the safety of the food.

Photo credits: Imperfect Produce

   

However, the FDA cautions that, “if an item is soft, discolored, moldy, or has a strong unpleasant smell,it is probably not safe to eat.”

 

Image credit: Imperfect Produce

While some farmers have historically donated their “ugly” produce (a topic I may cover in a later blog post!), up to now, many have had little financial incentive to market this produce, since the big grocery chains don’t want it.  While a federal “good Samaritan” law limits liability for individuals or entities that donate, and the non-profit organizations that subsequently use, quality and properly labeled foods that “may not be readily marketable due to appearance, age, freshness, grade, size, surplus, or other conditions,” it still takes money and resources for farmers to identify, coordinate with, and often get the “ugly” produce to a donor. Not to mention that only seven states, including New York and California, offer tax credits to growers for donating food.  Many food banks will only accept non-perishable foods that are within the labeled “use by” or “best by” date, again compounding the difficulty of bringing perfectly good produce to the table.

Enter Imperfect Produce, a subscription service that sources “ugly” produce directly from farms and delivers it at a discount to customers’ homes. (Disclaimer: This article is not an endorsement of Imperfect Produce.  Neither the author nor the Illinois Science Council has received any form of compensation from Imperfect Produce in relation to this article.)

Imperfect Produce began servicing the Chicago market in December 2017 and, based on my own anecdotal evidence, has created quite the buzz around town since then.  I too joined the delivery service this year, and have so far been thoroughly impressed with the produce I’ve received. Here are the contents of two of my boxes:

 It’s hard to believe that this produce was considered unsellable and otherwise might have ended up in a landfill.  Imperfect Produce estimates that, to date, 19 million pounds of food, 772 million gallons of water, and 42.3 million pounds of CO2have been saved by consumers utilizing their service.

While Imperfect Produce may make “ugly” food rescue more available to the masses, this certainly isn’t the only avenue, or the first time rescue efforts have hit the spotlight in Chicago.  The Chicago Tribune’s “Ugly Food Rescue” series, which ran in mid-late 2017, called on some of Chicago’s best-known chefs to shop farmers markets for seconds and “ugly” produce and transform them into beautiful and delicious dishes.  Nor is Imperfect Produce the only service reselling produce to consumers that don’t meet industry cosmetic standards.  And other services like Imperfect Produce aiming to combat food waste are gaining steam around the country—Hungry Harvest delivers “ugly” produce to consumers on the east coast, and Misfits is a brand of ugly produce, sold at supermarket giants like Meijer and HyVee.

Reselling cosmetically imperfect produce is just one avenue for combatting food waste identified by ReFED.  Increasing consumer education about food safety and standardizing date labelling are other strategies.

The complexity of the laws regarding food labelling and food safety have, undoubtedly, also contributed to the food waste “epidemic” in our country.  Some changes are being implemented to combat waste stemming from these laws and regulations, particularly with the goal of reducing food waste.  Stay tuned for more on this subject in my next blog post!

Erin Conway is a partner at the firm Amin Talati Upadhye LLP in Chicago and specializes in Intellectual Property law.