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!
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
How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by purchasing items from Amazon.com via links on this site, or by linking to me from your own blog, or by subscribing to my RSS feed. Finally, you can consider submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg or stumbleupon. Thank you for your support!