What a Waste! Food Advocates Call for Grocery Stores to Combat Food Waste

food waste credit: Jinx!, FlickrCCAt Andronico’s Community Markets in California, not all of the apples are perfectly round and shiny. In fact, some are blemished or oddly shaped, while others are a half-inch smaller than the standard size. These imperfect apples aren’t priced like their wax-fruit-looking counterparts, either, retailing for 69 cents a pound, instead of $1.50. The apples taste great, they just have “a bit of a Goldilocks problem” says Dana Gunders, a project scientist specializing in food and agriculture with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Gunders says that we could rescue millions of tons of perfectly edible fruits and vegetables—food that typically gets fed to livestock or is plowed under by farmers unable to sell it—if more markets followed Andronico’s lead in selling less-than-perfect produce.

Supermarkets are not the only places wasting food. Diners scrape uneaten meals into garbage bins, while fresh produce, dairy and takeout goes bad on refrigerator shelves. Food waste is the single largest component of U.S. landfills where it accounts for a large portion of domestic methane emissions, a greenhouse gas over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide

There are also the crops that are planted, but not harvested, when commodity prices offered to farmers fall below their production costs. A recent study estimated that over 90 million pounds of broccoli a year is left to rot in fields—enough to feed every child in the National School Lunch Program over 11 servings of the nutrient-packed vegetable

All told, an astonishing 40% of the food that American farmers raise never gets eaten. That also means farmers are wasting a significant percentage of fossil fuels, agro-chemicals, fresh water and arable land on crops that will never be eaten. The cost of this overproduction to the environment is huge. And so is the cost to consumers who ultimately foot the bill in higher food prices.

Food activists argue that supermarkets should lead the way in saving food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that retailers lose $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and vegetables alone. Then there are all the prepared foods in the deli section that never get sold. (One grocer cited in an NRDC report on food waste estimated that his store throws away nearly 50% of their rotisserie chickens every day.) Finally, there are the dairy, bakery and other items that get tossed in the dumpster because they are nearing their expiration date.

Doug Rauch, the former CEO of Trader Joe’s, plans to market these soon to be out-of-date items at a steep discount to low-income families in a new supermarket—the first of several planned—in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. He’s calling the project the Urban Food Initiative. Rauch argues that the food is still good and shouldn’t be wasted.

While all food deteriorates with age, the sell-by dates stamped on packages refer to peak quality, not to safety. Manufacturers naturally want people to use their product when it is at its best, and they also have an economic incentive to move old items briskly off the shelves to be replaced by newer stock. The result is that the sell-by-dates—which are intended as recommendations to the retailer—tend to be quite conservative, leading to a lot of food being thrown away weeks before it needs to be.

Gunders says that sell-by dates should be standardized nationwide and made to reflect when food will spoil, rather than simply serve the manufacturer’s desire to boost sales.

Most supermarkets already contribute some of their past prime food to soup kitchens and food pantries serving the poor, although these programs tend to be inconsistent. And many are reluctant to give away perishable items, fearing that they will be sued if it spoils. To encourage more generous donations, President Clinton signed the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in 1996 which protects retailers from liability when they contribute food to a nonprofit. Yet many grocers still fear any potential negative publicity and only a fraction of usable food gets donated.

Many supermarkets don’t even know how much they throw away. Gunders says that retailers need to start by assessing the extent of their waste. Then they can take common-sense measures—like ordering less of certain perishable items and offering nearly expired and damaged food at bargain prices.

There are some promising technological fixes, too. Simply exchanging heat-producing incandescent bulbs for cooler LEDs in meat and produce sections could cut spoilage dramatically. Some U.K. grocers are testing the use of an ethylene-absorbing strip in strawberry packages to prolong produce life. There are also chemical sensors that monitor boxed fruit and can warn produce managers before they become over-ripe.

As supermarkets begin to take the food waste problem more seriously, they can help the environment, cut costs for consumers and boost their own profits in the process.