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Cutting Back on Food Waste Could Have Economic, Environmental Benefits

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Vilsack’s Agriculture Department is working with Cornell University to encourage changes in school lunchrooms to discourage kids from tossing out lunch items as part of the administration’s U.S. Food Waste Challenge.

The waste problem “is all along the food chain,” said Dana Gunders, a scientist following the issue for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “When you talk about reducing food waste, in some ways you’re just talking about making the food system more efficient. That means it’s a different type of problem in different parts of the food chain.”

The USDA estimates that 30 percent of the available U.S. food supply is lost at the retail and consumer levels. Americans wasted 36 million tons of food in 2011, and a lot of that wound up in landfills, producing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, according to the EPA.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reported this fall that 1.3 billion metric tons of food is wasted globally each year across the food chain — one-third of all food that is produced, and enough to add 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

In a stunning revelation last month, the British food giant Tesco estimated that 68 percent of bagged salad goes to waste, including 35 percent of what’s purchased by customers.

Among U.S. shoppers, confusion about expiration dates is a major cause of food waste, according to a study released this fall by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard University’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. Researchers say consumers often think a product is no longer safe just because its “sell by” date has passed, even though such dates are primarily intended for managing inventory, with little relation to freshness.

The report called for establishing a more uniform, easy-to-understand labeling system that would differentiate between safety-based and quality-based dates. (“Safe if used by” would be more helpful to consumers than “use by,” for example.) “Freeze by” dates also could help discourage consumers from throwing out foods that are still safe to eat.

“The date labeling system in the U.S. is not a system at all, it’s a mess.” Gunders said.

Food manufacturers agree the dates aren’t based on safety. “These date declarations are intended to provide consumers with pertinent information about the product from a quality standpoint,” said a statement from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, suggesting that the issue needed to be addressed by international standards.

But the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group representing Walmart, Kroger and other supermarket chains, wants to work with manufacturers to address the date issue. The supermarket industry’s consumer experts believe there need to be two dates on products, one for retailers’ use and another telling consumers when the foods should be discarded, said David Fikes of FMI.

“We’ve got to get into conversation with the manufacturers and hear from them what is acceptable,” he said.

The USDA is developing a new Food Keeper app for smartphones and tablets that will allow consumers to find out what a food item’s shelf life should be. The FMI is supplying the data but couldn’t afford the development costs. The release date isn’t yet certain. The USDA is spreading the development costs over two fiscal years, Fikes said.

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