Minimizing Food Waste

By Hunter, Beatrice Trum | Consumers' Research Magazine, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Minimizing Food Waste


Hunter, Beatrice Trum, Consumers' Research Magazine


Observe food discarded in the American home garbage pail or disposal unit; left on plates in a school cafeteria or restaurant; or collected by an airline attendant. Everywhere, one sees shocking plate waste.

Each year, Americans discard more than 96 billion pounds of good food. If 5% was recovered, it could provide the equivalent of a day's food for four million hungry people; 10%, eight million; and 25%, 20 million. In recent years, growing concerns about hunger, resource conservation, and economic costs of food waste have raised public awareness. The yearly cost of food-waste disposal for municipalities is estimated to be $1 billion.

Food wastes occur throughout the food chain. It begins on fields of unharvested crops, and continues in transportation, storage, processing, to wholesale markets, retail food stores, restaurants, and homes.

Inevitably, some losses occur due to severe weather, disease, or predation in growing crops. Harvesting losses result from increased mechanization, with machinery that does not retrieve the entire crop. Some food losses occur in storage, due to insect infestation or mold, or due to improper transportation and handling. Produce, dairy products, meat, and other perishable foods may shrink due to inadequate packaging or overlong storage. Perishable foods can deteriorate, wilt, or suffer bacterial degradation or microbial growth if they are stored and/or transported at improper temperatures.

Frequent handling of foods by processors, brokers, or wholesalers can lead to losses. A typical food product is handled, on average, 33 times before it is purchased by a consumer.

Some food losses occur in processing, such as in removal of inedible portions, trimming of bone and excessive fat, blood, or bruised flesh, in butchering; or in peeling, coring, and pitting in processing produce.

For example, about 20% of a fresh apple's weight is lost when the apple is converted to applesauce. A fresh potato loses about half of its weight when processed into frozen french fries. However, most if this loss is recovered and used for dehydrated potato flakes and potato starch. Potato skins may be salvaged for animal feed.

At the retail level, it is estimated that 5.4 billion pounds of food are lost yearly in the United States. Dairy products, fresh produce, and other perishable products account for the largest share of food losses, due to overstocking, overtrimming, improper stock rotation, and post-holiday discard of seasonal items (e.g. Halloween cookies). Greater demand for convenience foods results in increased trimmings of packaged produce pre-cut in the factory rather than in the home.

Another retail food loss results from the removal of foods past their "sell by..." dates, mostly with dairy and bakery products. Increased discards result from more in-store bakeries and offerings of freshly prepared and deli items where highly perishable foods need to be managed. …

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