The United States enjoys the safest and most abundant food supply in the world. Yet, one in eight or 41 million Americans are food insecure. Globally, the hunger epidemic and the challenge of feeding a global population of 10 billion by 2050 will further strain the world’s food producers and natural resources. While the causes of world hunger and the complexities associated with population growth are multifaceted, reducing food waste is one way to practically address these challenges at home and abroad.
On April 1st, President Trump declared the month of April the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Month. The announcement garnered relatively little fanfare, but it represents a collaborative policymaking approach that we all wish was more prevalent in Washington, D.C. Granted, food waste is not an issue that draws partisan ire from members of Congress but, nonetheless, it is an issue with significant environmental and social consequences. Following the President’s announcement, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unveiled a joint strategy Winning on Reducing Food Waste FY 2019-2020. The strategy sets forth a national goal to reduce food waste 50% by 2030. Each of the six action areas prioritized in the strategy rely on voluntary or education-based initiatives, as opposed to government mandates or incentives. This blog post will focus on two of the action areas covered:
- Priority Area 4: Clarify and Communicate Information on Food Safety, Food Date Labels, and Food Donations
- Priority Area 5: Collaborate with Private Industry to Reduce Food Loss and Waste Across the Supply Chain
Even to those of us accustomed to citing statistics that are difficult to personalize and contextualize, the figures on food waste are shocking. Food waste is the number one item thrown away in the United States. 40% of the U.S. food supply is discarded or uneaten annually. Each day, that amount is the equivalent to filling up a football stadium of food. And it is not as if the problem exists only on an industrial or institutional level, households are responsible for 43% percent of all food waste in the United States – more than restaurants, grocery stores, or any other part of the food chain.
From an economic perspective, the incentive to reduce food waste is not insignificant. On average, a family of four throws away $1,800 of food they don’t eat or approximately $34 dollars per week.
From an environmental perspective, the costs of food waste are mounting. Approximately 6% of food waste is diverted from landfills through composting. Food waste, when present in landfills, emits methane which is four times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Resource conservation is another key consideration. Foods higher on the ecological pyramid require more energy to be produced and discarding those foods prevents valuable resources from reaching a productive use. For example, discarding one egg wastes 55 gallons of fresh water.
To address this challenge, the two priority areas listed below are where tremendous progress must be made if the strategy is to ultimately succeed.
Priority Area 4: Clarify and Communicate Information on Food Safety, Food Date Labels, and Food Donations
This is an area where reform is clearly needed. One of the main drivers of food waste is the lack of clarity about how long food can be safely stored and used post-purchase. There are currently at least six different ways date labels appear on food packaging: best by, best if used by, best if used before, sell by, use by, or freeze by. Under the current regulatory framework, all of these dates are not indicators of food safety but of flavor or quality. Despite the fact that these labels are suggestive of whether or not the food is safe to consume, the only expiration date required by federal law is on infant formula. Although there are resources and information available to inform consumers about label definitions and efforts to streamline these labels and clarify their definitions are underway, there is a significant knowledge gap that consumers must overcome before changes in behavior will occur. One solution may be to require the inclusion of the “Refrigerator and Freezer Storage Chart” (chart below) on all new refrigerators sold in the United States so that consumers and households have ready access to food safety storage information. A second solution may be to incorporate temporal food safety information on the Nutrition Facts Panel as FDA endeavors to update it.
Priority Area 5: Collaborate with Private Industry to Reduce Food Loss and Waste Across the Supply Chain
There are currently 23 companies enrolled in the ‘U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions’ initiative. Each of the participants agreed in 2015 to a 50% food loss and waste reduction goal by 2030. As technological disruption in the supply chain sector continues to unfold, creating interoperable systems with accessible and comprehensible food safety and date labeling information will be critical to reducing food waste. The romaine lettuce recalls last fall showcase how incredibly impactful the lack of granular trace-back information can be on food waste. As a result of the nationwide recalls and ‘do not consume’ advisories from the FDA, millions of tons of safe to consume romaine lettuce were discarded. Additionally, improvements in farm-to-retailer traceability systems that include granular location data, temperature, and time of harvest data will be a key component in reducing food waste caused by recalls. This information housed in blockchains or other supply chain management systems will also help reduce food waste pre-purchase at the distribution and retail level. However, ensuring that this information can be shared and utilized across different platforms and parties will be critical.
Ultimately, the food waste dilemma is almost entirely within our control. Consumer behavior and choices, if improved, could cut our current food waste footprint almost in half. The question will be whether or not the voluntary action areas outlined in the administration’s strategy to reduce food waste will be enough to achieve its goal or will food waste rise to the level where mandatory government action will be required to win the day.