Why Reducing Food Waste Is Harder Than it Looks

It's difficult to think of a more pointless practice than to go through all the effort of growing, harvesting, transporting, storing and selling food--only to waste it by throwing it away.

Unfortunately, consumers, and the food service industry we buy from, waste food preposterously. In fact, a 2004 study from the University of Alabama claims Americans waste nearly half of their food. And a highly detailed recent study of UK consumption habits suggests that as much as 25% of UK consumers' food is avoidable waste.

However, it also shouldn't surprise Casual Kitchen readers to find that, sometimes, studies capitalize on fear and alarmism at the expense of calm and rational analysis. The fact is, there are often serious tradeoffs involved when we try to recapture food that otherwise might be "wasted."

In fact, in some instances it can be downright dangerous to attempt to reduce food waste.

Let's go over a couple of examples in the data (and prepare yourself, because these waste numbers are truly disturbing). The UK study claims in one example that 210,000 tons of "processed vegetables and salads" is wasted each year. The study further claims the majority of this waste occurred because the food was "not used in time," which simply means the food passed a sell-by date label (see page 4, and then pages 41-42 of the study).

The study calculates the cost of this waste (what I call "date-label waste") to be a shocking £240 million per year (about US$350m--and this is just in the UK!), and it further claims that practically 100% of this waste is completely avoidable. Sheesh.

Another disturbing example: a full 96% of the waste in the category of "coleslaw and hummus" is due to date-label waste, and, you guessed it, this study claims that this waste is also totally avoidable. It's obviously a smaller category, and the dollar value of that waste is "only" £71 million (about $US100m), but to me, it's the nature of that waste that seems so shocking.

Wow. Okay. If this is all true, then why don't we just add three or four days to the sell-by date on all food products that have a high propensity to be wasted? Usually foods never go bad by the sell-by date anyway. Why wouldn't that dramatically reduce waste?

Here's where things get a little tricky.

If you read my article that exposed the inappropriate alarmism of the so-called "Ten Riskiest Foods" study, you know that despite the impressions we get from the media, food-borne illnesses are actually quite rare in this country, and deaths from food-borne illnesses are shockingly rare.

However, the odds of contracting a food-borne illness would increase meaningfully if we were to eat more expired food, or, more specifically, if we were to eat food that was dated with less conservative sell-by dates.

Yes, we could change the sell-by dates on our food and we would definitely reduce our food waste. But it would be at the risk of increasing occurrences of food borne illness.

The CSPI, the organization that I lampooned in my Who's Watching the Watchdogs? post, wrote an inflammatory and fear-mongering report based on a food-borne illness rate of just 2.4 thousandths of a percentage point, and a death rate so low that it rounds to zero.

If that is enough to generate a flood of mindlessly alarmist media stories (which it did, sadly), imagine the media firestorm that would erupt if that illness rate ticked up even slightly. And that would likely cause regulators to step in and force the food companies involved to recall and destroy (in other words: waste) all related food products that might be at risk.

None of this changes the fact that we can and should try to reduce our own sources of food waste in our homes. We can all do our best to by purchasing only as much perishable produce as we need, by freezing or using meat or dairy products in a safe and timely manner, and being smart about our purchasing and cooking habits.

Here's my point: Our food regulators have put in place certain safety measures that definitionally create waste because they want to do the best they can to insure our safety. And if food companies or food retailers were to try to reduce food waste by dating their foods using even slightly less conservative standards, they would get crucified by the media and by so-called watchdog groups like the CSPI.

So, let me ask a difficult question: Who is being wasteful?

Readers, what are your thoughts?

Update: The debate that follows below in the comments led to a follow-up article: When Do You Throw Out Food? A Question For Readers. Have a look!

Related Posts:
Brand Disloyaly
Who Really Holds the Power in Our Food Industry?
The Worst Lie of the Food Blogosphere
Survivor Bias: Why "Big Food" Isn't Quite As Evil As You Think It Is
The Problem with Government Food Safety Regulation
Who's Watching the Watchdogs? Ethical Problems in the "Ten Riskiest Foods" Report By the CSPI

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Turkish Jade said...

well, if so much gets to be wasted, why don't they decrease the production rate in the first place in order to avoid over-production, which in turn leads to a surplus of goods that are not sold before the end of their shelf life?

Julia said...

I would also pose the same question as Özge.

Also, it should be noted that the "sell by" date is not the "expiry" date. A food-safety buffer is built in, and people should not throw away that hummos at home just because it passes the sell by date.

Daniel said...

A couple of good insights. Ozge, I think the answer to your question is that it can be extremely difficult to predict demand, especially with products that spoil quickly, like milk, meat and other prepared foods.

Julia, agreed. But if I'm not mistaken, restaurants and food service companies are required by law to discard food that has passed the sell-by date.

Finally, I'd be curious to hear the answer to this question from readers: How many people throw out food if it has passed the sell by date?

Readers, what are your thoughts?


edj3 said...

Dan, it depends on the product. I toss regular milk if it smells or has passed that date. I generally don't toss buttermilk unless it's gotten smelly.

However I will err on the side of caution. As I mentioned in a blog post this week, we came home from a business trip and found that our cat nanny had left the fridge door open. The temp was 58F in there and we tossed pretty much all the food, which was costly but cheaper than a bad case of food poisoning.

Alex Wu said...

Mostly I play it by ear - I'll smell and assess if it's past due. But as a vegan, this is mainly bagged salads/veggies and rice milk that come with printed due dates. I've used veggies that were almost a week past due that had no issue. I wouldn't throw away anything based on the label without having a look see first, since they do set due dates conservatively and can't possibly consider all the factors involved.

Katie said...

While food waste is, to a certain extent, inevitable, my question is why so much of it has to end up in landfills? Surely there are other uses for it, such as hog fodder or compost, that could put it back into the food production cycle and rescue the nutrients and money invested in it. Diverting the waste stream could even generate income for the restaurants and grocery stores, if they sell it to farmers, who would then be using less corn- and soy-based feedstock and/or less fertilizer for their crops. Why isn't this happening in more places? Would it be commercially viable in larger cities? It just seems to me that there are much better ways to handle this problem than just chucking the food waste in the trash.

Charity said...

I echo Alex Wu. I never pay attention to dates with anything except yogurt (maybe because it's too hard to tell if it's gone off?). Milk in my fridge lasts much longer than the date - I just smell it before I pour & I'm good to go. I've never had food poisoning. I do end up throwing out more produce than I'd like, though. Usually because I've forgotten the cucumber/squash/broccoli/etc. in the bottom of my crisper drawer & it languishes for a couple of months before it's uncovered. :-(

Diane said...

My city composts organic waste, so technically all my waste isn't "wasted" but gets returned as compost to city residents and city infrastructure.

However, that doesn't mean I don't waste food. I menu plan, and am pretty efficient in what I buy, but I always find a few things at the bottom of the bin that go bad. I'm way better than I used to be though. Now if I have fruit going bad I make compote and freeze it, or such like things to use up leftover bits. I don't throw things away by "sell by date" because I tend not to buy packaged foods with dates on them - yogurt, eggs, and the like. What I do buy with dates, I use.

Diane said...

Realized the end of my post didn't make much sense. I do buy yogurt and eggs, but hardly anything else with a sell-by date. Maybe some tempeh occasionally. Not much else. Meat I always buy and use the day I buy it (or next day) so it is never wasted.

Marcia said...

I hate wasting food, but it does happen.

I am not likely to toss something until a few days after the sell by date.

I also don't throw out leftovers after the recommended 4 days (usually go 6, maybe 7 if it's vegan).

As far as "not wasting" goes, I do enjoy reading about the dumpster diving "Freegans". We started composting this year, and I believe next year, our city will start collecting food scraps for compost (they already do it for businesses).

I also recently read "Farm City", and I was impressed - this woman in the Bay Area had chickens and pigs in the city, and basically dumpster dived restaurants to get the food to feed her animals.

Erin from Long Island said...

I also would like to see production of food in this country decrease. Less surplus = less waste AND less sales that tempt you to buy more then you need.

I almost never look at sell by dates. I have bought tofu over a week before its sell by date only to open it and discover a smell so foul there are no words for it.
On the other hand, I have had milk last over a week past its sell by date with no problem.

Daniel said...

I really like the thinking here. There are some interesting questions and issues that are emerging in the comments (like how much attention to pay to sell-by dates, whether to consider sell-by dates at all, and what types foods require the most vigilance, etc), and so tomorrow I'm going to run a related post that addresses some of these thoughts.

Great input everybody. Thank you.


Kristen@TheFrugalGirl said...

I'm a big no-food-waste proponent (in fact, I post a picture of my food waste each Friday on my blog to keep my accountable, and my readers join in as well!).

My focus is more on reducing household waste, but my thought on the sort of waste you mention is that we consumers should probably stop buying so many prepared foods. I mean, canned chickpeas certainly last a lot longer than prepared hummus, and potato salad ingredients last a lot longer than prepared potato salad.

And when you make food at home, you can avoid over-production for the most part...you can make as much hummus as you need/want.

Also, regarding expiration dates, I rely more on my nose than I do on dates, though I exercise more caution with meats than with other foods.