Food Waste: Part 1 – Production and Retail

And now, the synthesis of some notes I took on food waste while doing research for a story I’m writing.


The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines food waste as “uneaten food and food preparation wastes from residences and commercial establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants, and produce stands, institutional cafeterias and kitchens, and industrial sources like employee lunchrooms.” Food waste can occur all throughout the life cycle of a food product, from before the harvest all the way to the dining room table. With the waste that happens at all these different stages taken into account, the percentage of wastage in the US is a pretty big chunk of overall food production. A 2009 study published in PLOS ONE estimates that 40% of food produced in America is wasted, and a 2014 report from the USDA Economic Research Service pegs the number at 31%. In terms of calories, that’s either 1,400 calories per person per day, or 1,249 calories per person per day, respectively.

Obviously, this is a problem. Food production is the dynamo that powers all of human civilization. If that dynamo is inefficient and losing 1.3 billion tons of fuel per year, that’s a problem. If that dynamo is inefficient and losing 1.3 billion blah blah blah, and all of those 1.3 billion tons of fuel took additional fuel and water usage to produce, that’s a really big problem.

To put it another way, the situation isn’t as simple as walking to the store, and taking a wrong turn, and wasting an hour of time being lost before you make it to the store. The situation is driving a gas guzzler/steam engine beast of a vehicle, and taking a wrong turn, and wasting an hour of time and of gas and water and whatever else powers this thing you’re driving before making it to the store. Sustainable farming practices are kind of another kettle of fish, but it’s important to note here that a wasted potato is not just a wasted potato. It’s also a waste of all the resources that went into making that potato, which, depending on what point of the process the potato is wasted at, could be pretty hefty. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that, for the year of 2011, the carbon footprint of global food loss—the amount of energy put into food that ended up wasted—was 4.4 GtCO2, “or about 8% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions [EC, JRC/PBL, 2012 Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research, version 4.2]. This means that the contribution of food wastage emissions to global warming is almost equivalent (87%) to global road transport emissions [IPCC, 2014 Fifth Assessment Report. Chapter 8: Transportation].”

How do we arrive at such an enormous amount of wastage? That’s what most of this two-part series of posts will address.

Before or During Harvest and Processing.

At this level, food waste is caused by the kind of stuff we’ve been dealing with since the Sumer. Pest infestations and weather can ruin a harvest, or render a large portion of a crop unsafe to eat. A newer challenge is machines used to harvest food, which can sometimes damage produce, or fail to properly discern between ripe and unripe fruits and vegetables.

Food standards also cause food wastage—essentially, the concerns from the retailers trickling down (or up?) to the farmers. As an article in the USDA ERS’s journal Food Review explains, “minimum quality standards for fresh produce set by State and Federal marketing orders, bumper crops that reduce commodity prices, and consumer demand for blemish-free produce often result in the removal of safe and edible produce from the food marketing system. With such requirements in mind, fruit and vegetable producers often harvest selectively … since these commodities would likely be discarded in the packing shed or processing plant.”

I’ll talk a bit more about “consumer demand for blemish-free produce” in a moment, but first it’s worth noting that some of this produce left in the farm is used as fertilizer, or fed to animals. But that is also something we will talk more about later.

In processing, it’s the same factors causing waste—pest infestations, irregular temperature, and improper grading. A lot of food is discarded at this point for safety reasons, so it’s difficult to determine how much is wasted at this step. Temperatures and long stints in storage can also cause nutritional or caloric deterioration of produce—not quantitative losses, but qualitative. To go back to our potatoes, in this case, no one’s throwing away any potatoes, but all the potatoes are losing flavor and nutrients as they go through processing.

During Retail.

Now we get to the stuff that really makes me see red. With the issues discussed above, mostly the solutions we need are improvement of technique, better access to information, and better organization of supply lines. With the stuff I’m about to discuss, we’re more talking about god damn it just stop doing that.

First, there’s all the sell-by, best-before, use-by, display-until business. In the EU, there are regulations requiring that some of these be used for specific products. In the US, believe it or not, there’s actually no federal law regarding food-labelling (except certain types of baby food), though there are over twenty states that require it. And while all of these different labels mean different things, and some of them, like best-before, really have nothing to do with the safety of the food, supermarkets typically dispose of food the instant it’s past its date. And the public is almost totally clueless on the distinction between these dates, so seeing that something is past its sell-by date can lead consumers to discard items from their pantry even when they’re perfectly fine. This is the reason why the US has not adopted federal food-labelling laws, because they see how much food waste it causes among retailers. It’s kind of remarkable that, in this case, agriculture industry lobbyists have actually helped the environment by lobbying against food-labelling bills. Who saw that one coming?

Basically all of the info for that last paragraph comes from Tristram Stuart, specifically chapter four of his 2009 book Waste. This next tidbit comes from an article Stuart co-authored in The Guardian, and it addresses another quirk of food waste at the retail level: “Supermarkets are in a position of breathtaking asymmetry with their suppliers … These businesses [the suppliers] know that unless they provide the exact amounts requested, at the exact time required and often in the exact shape specified, they’ll lose business. So they overproduce, resulting in huge amounts of waste when forecasters change their minds on how many pork pies they think their shopper will buy this month.”

But the most heinous, fucking pointless reason for food waste at the retail level is, drum-motherfucking-roll, cosmetic standards. Retailers will throw away, or not accept food that is bruised, misshapen, miscolored, weird size, or anything that doesn’t meet their guidelines for what a strawberry or a carrot or an onion should look like. It’s hard to pin down how much food waste this causes, but an NRDC report provides some anecdotes to put it in perspective: “One large cucumber farmer estimated that fewer than half the vegetables he grows actually leave his farm and that 75 percent of the cucumbers culled before sale are edible. [Bloom, American Wasteland, 23.] A large tomato-packing house reported that in mid-season it can fill a dump truck with 22,000 pounds of discarded tomatoes every 40 minutes. [ibid, 229.] And a packer of citrus, stone fruit, and grapes estimated that 20 to 50 percent of the produce he handles is unmarketable but perfectly edible. [California Association of Food Banks, “Farm to Family” video.]”

There are some services that collect these ugly foods and sell them at discounted prices, but we’ll discuss that in solutions. Suffice it to say, most of this awkward produce is not being eaten, it’s being wasted.

Next week I’ll conclude this two-part series with a discussion of food waste at the consumption level, and some solutions to the problem at varying levels.

Sources (for part 1)

The EPA for its food waste definition
This article in PLOS ONE and this report by the USDA for estimates on percentage of food wasted in US
This FAO report for estimate of global food waste
This USDA article for info on food loss in harvesting
This UC Davis study for commentary on qualitative, nutritional, and caloric losses
Waste by Tristram Stuart for everything about sell-by dates
This article in the Guardian for commentary on how supermarket demands cause overproduction
This NRDC report for lots of great background info, as well as anecdotes on amount of waste caused by cosmetic demands
And wikipedia, for making so many of these resources known to me, and for a solid overview of the issue

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