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The United States and Food Waste


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According to the United States Department of Agriculture, anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in the United States is wasted. In 2010, America’s food waste was recorded to be about 133 billion pounds (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2023). Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that food waste accounts for around a quarter of all landfilled municipal solid waste (Environmental Protection Agency, 2023). As climate change continues to catalyze the crucial problem of food insecurity for millions of people around the world, it is vital that governments take equally dramatic steps to mitigate the consequences. Unfortunately, most voters are completely unaware of just how much is involved in getting food from our nation’s farms right into their kitchen or local restaurant.


In a 2021 report, the EPA detailed the many ways in which food production takes a toll on the environment. Immense amounts of water, energy, and landmass are taken up by the agricultural industry every year — only for so much product to go to waste (Environmental Protection Agency, 2021). In fact, government agencies themselves have a hard time estimating the precise numbers on food waste, given just how extensive the industry of food production is. Despite this, EPA’s report estimates that each year a staggering 140 million acres of land, 22 trillion liters of fresh water, and 14 billion pounds of fertilizer are wasted (Environmental Protection Agency, 2021). Sadly, this product ends up going to landfills rather than feeding American citizens. In addition, approximately 664 billion kWh of energy are used to power the production of this food — enough energy to power over 50 million homes for an entire year (Environmental Protection Agency, 2021). In the same report, the EPA estimates that the total yearly emissions released by producing this wasted food is equal to the yearly emissions of 42 coal-powered plants. Perhaps even more jarring — this statistic does not account for the greenhouse gas emissions that come from food waste once it is sitting in landfills (Environmental Protection Agency, 2021). Once in landfills, wasted food produces methane. What many people may not realize is that methane has a much more powerful warming effect than more commonly known gasses, such as carbon dioxide. In its first 20 years after reaching the atmosphere, methane has over 80 times the warming potential of CO2, and contributes to at least 25 percent of today’s global warming (Environmental Defense Fund, 2023). As is evident by these numbers, the agriculture industry has a massive hand in climate change.


Since there are so many complex aspects of agriculture and food production, it can be hard for the average consumer to understand the magnitude of waste or what can be done to remedy the issue. It is also easy to assume the problem is too vast to take on at the individual level. However, in a 2014 USDA study, the organization found that 31 percent of food available at retail and consumer levels went to waste in 2010. Losses at the consumer level accounted for a whopping 21 percent of the available food supply — or roughly 90 billion pounds! (Buzby et al., 2014). Though many possible causes of food waste exist at the consumer level, one of the most prevalent may actually be the misinterpretation of ‘best-by’ date labels. The FDA claims that these labels may contribute to around 20 percent of food waste within American homes (Food and Drug Administration, 2019). Evidently, most date labels are not based on exact science at all — but are a suggestion of the time frame in which the item will likely retain its desired level of quality or flavor. Many consumers see this label as an indication of safety, rather than an indication of shifting quality (Food and Drug Administration, 2019). As a result, consumers end up unnecessarily throwing away perfectly usable food products. The FDA also suggests ways consumers can curb food waste in their own homes, such as storing more foods in the freezer rather than the refrigerator until they are ready to be eaten (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2022). It is also suggested to always make a shopping list before going to the grocery store — and intend on sticking to it! When eating out, if it is possible to take a smaller portion or save the remainder of your food, it is helpful to do so (Food and Drug Administration, 2023). These tips may seem like common sense, but if more people used them on a daily basis, massive impacts on reducing food waste can be achieved.


Today, organizations such as ReFed are pushing for more legislation aiming to reduce food waste. Their site’s policy finder allows users to easily search among federal and state legislation regarding food waste, helping aid in research required for policy improvements. One of the best known federal legislations regarding food waste is the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which makes it easier for people to donate food by protecting them from liability. This essentially means that individuals who donate wholesome food in good faith are not held legally responsible for the “nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food”. The same protections apply to nonprofits that distribute the food (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2019). These legal protections can provide more incentives for nonprofit organizations, allowing for higher engagement with food donations as a whole. In November 2021, the Food Donation Improvement Act was proposed in hopes of improving legislation already in place. The aim of this bipartisan bill is to increase the coverage of the Emerson Act by clarifying some of its ambiguous language (ReFed, 2023). The Food Donation Improvement Act requires the USDA to write out specific regulations explaining labeling and safety requirements of food products. It also expands legal protections to not only nonprofit organizations, but retailers, schools, restaurants, and more. (ReFed, 2022). In addition, the bill extends protection to “donations offered to recipients at a Good Samaritan reduced price”, which is defined as “a price that is not greater than the cost of handling, administering, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, and distributing the food” (DeBode, 2023). After much support in Congress from both Republicans and Democrats, President Biden signed the bill into law on January 5th, 2023 (DeBode, 2023).


In December 2021, the Food Date Labeling Act was introduced in the Senate to standardize food labeling in the U.S. The bill would require manufacturers to introduce a dual labeling system with differentiation between ‘best if used by’ vs. ‘use by’ (ReFed, 2023). The first would indicate quality, while the second would be used to indicate safety. The bill would also eliminate state laws that prevent perfectly edible food from being donated past its printed “quality” date (ReFed, 2023). In addition, it would require federal agencies to educate consumers on the new system, and address common misconceptions regarding labeling (Georger, 2022).


In the past several years, state legislatures have proposed a plethora of food waste bills. In 2021, the main topics that were addressed were waste bans, research, and funding (Georger, 2022). Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont are examples of states that have laws that limit the amount of organic waste that is produced by businesses, such as restaurants and supermarkets (Recycle Track SystemsS, 2023). For example, Connecticut recently reduced their threshold for commercial food waste generators (Georger, 2022). Many states have also attempted to incentivize food donation by offering tax breaks and credits. States such as Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Oregon, South Carolina, and Virginia all have specific legislation regarding tax credits given to businesses that donate wholesome food, as well as the farmers who donate a portion of crops. (Recycle Track Systems, 2023).

These introduced legislative actions are a small step in the right direction for reducing food waste, but there is still much work to be done. Given the magnitude of food waste in the United States and all across the globe, tackling this issue can feel incredibly overwhelming. Though it may seem small and insignificant, doing things such as sharing information about environmental and food waste policy on social media and educating your community can help to catalyze change. It is also helpful to contact local lawmakers and create a dialogue around these important issues. With a sense of mindfulness as well as some simple food saving tips, the average citizen can have a huge impact on increasing sustainability and moving towards a less wasteful future.


 

References


Buzby, J. C, Hodan-Farah Wells, and Jeffrey Hyman. (2014, February 1). The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2501659


Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2022, February 17). Tips to Reduce Food Waste. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA. Retrieved February 16, 2023, from https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/tips-reduce-food-waste


DeBode, S. (2023, January 6). Food Donation Improvement Act Signed Into Law. Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://chlpi.org/news-and-events/news-and-commentary/food-law-and-policy/food-donation-improvement-act-signed-into-law/


Environmental Defense Fund. (n.d.). Methane: A crucial opportunity in the climate fight. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.edf.org/climate/methane-crucial-opportunity-climate-fight


Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, November). From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2021-11/from-farm-to-kitchen-the-environmental-impacts-of-u.s.-food-waste_508-tagged.pdf


Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Information On the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Act. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.fns.usda.gov/tefap/information-bill-emerson-good-samaritan-food-act


Georger, S. (2022, February 18). The Power of Policy: Legislative and Regulatory Action to Reduce Food Waste. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://refed.org/articles/the-power-of-policy-legislative-and-regulatory-action-to-reduce-food-waste/?gclid=CjwKCAiAxP2eBhBiEiwA5puhNfRndAoHvfyM-E4br1HOg3X7gHiDDhMkyRuhqu1z2y2hdH89ovnKtBoCSpIQAvD_BwE


Office of the Commissioner. (2019, May 23). Confused by Date Labels on Packaged Foods? U.S. Food And Drug Administration. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/confused-date-labels-packaged-foods


Recycle Track Systems. (2021, August 19). 12 States with Food Waste Legislation. Recycle Track Systems. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.rts.com/blog/12-states-with-food-waste-legislation/



ReFed. (n.d.). U.S. Food Waste Policy Finder. Retrieved February 16, 2023, from https://policyfinder.refed.org/


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