Food Policy

The Feds Want To Tackle Causes of Food Waste, Except Their Own

We don't need more government to reduce food waste. Instead, we should be moving to eliminate the regulations that promote it.


Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration announced a joint agreement to reduce the amount of food that ends up in landfills, part of the government's Winning on Reducing Food Waste initiative. The agreement touts the economic advantages to business and consumers of reducing food waste, and pegs consumer education as a key element of the plan.

"The agreement is aimed at improving coordination and communication across federal agencies attempting to better educate Americans on the impacts and importance of reducing food loss and waste," an FDA press release declares.

Food waste is an enormous problem, and one I've discussed in many columns, including this one last year. I also devote a whole chapter to the topic in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable.

Nearly 40 percent of all food goes to waste; Americans wasted 133 billion pounds of food in 2010; and 40 million tons of food ends up in America's landfills every year. Food waste in those landfills breaks down into (among other things) methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And the production of food that goes to waste used up the same resources as food that is consumed—including water, fertilizer, pesticides, farm acreage, and oil.

The new federal initiative announced last week pins much of the blame for food waste on business and individuals. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, discussing the initiative, says "now is the time for action to educate consumers and businesses alike on the need for food waste reduction."

But who's going to educate the educators?

As I detail in my book, longstanding federal government policies are themselves responsible for massive amounts food waste. For example, Perdue's own agency is responsible for causing massive amounts of food waste under its National School Lunch Program, farm subsidy programs, and the USDA's inane system of food grading. Seafood regulations implemented by the Commerce Department cause similar waste on the high seas.

But acknowledging or reassessing these government contributions to food waste doesn't appear to constitute any part of this month's joint USDA, EPA, and FDA agreement. Instead, it puts the onus on us.

While businesses certainly can do more to reduce waste, the business community has long been a leader in combating and reducing food waste. McDonald's use of ugly apple slices in its Happy Meals is a classic example. Rotisserie chickens cooked and sold by grocers (when shoppers don't buy them in raw form) is another example.

But businesses large and small are also busy developing new ideas and plans to reduce food waste. Just this week, for example, Eater Montreal reported that bartenders in the city are increasingly reducing food waste by crafting cocktails that contain food scraps that might otherwise go to waste. Also this week—and closer to home—U.S.-based grocer Kroger is increasing its commitment to sell so-called ugly fruits and vegetables which might otherwise go to waste. I've been buying ugly fruits and vegetables at the Kroger-owned QFC grocer in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood—featured in the grunge-era film Singles—for a couple years.

Individuals are also empowered to donate food under existing laws. As I describe in my book, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, protects charitable individuals against liability for most food donations. The law isn't perfect. A recent law-review comment highlights its shortcomings, including particularly that the law itself hasn't convinced everyone that they won't get sued if they donate food. A recent University of Arkansas Law School study reports "many in the retail food industry are not aware of the Bill Emerson Act and the protections that it provides donors; some potential donors even believe it is illegal to donate food and grocery items."

Food waste is an enormous problem, and there are many good reasons to reduce it. The basic message behind last week's federal government announcement—that businesses and consumers should learn about and do more to reduce food waste—is a good one. But the federal government's message also misses the mark, because it fails to address the many ways that the government itself spends billions of dollars promoting policies and programs that promote food waste.

We don't need more government to reduce food waste. Instead, we should be moving to eliminate the regulations that promote it.

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  1. Don’t we want food waste in landfills? We don’t have anyone starving in the US, so the excess food going there isn’t hurting anyone, and you’d think it would be a good thing to have biodegradable material like food in a landfill. Basically compost so that someday the place can be used for something else.

    1. Landfills aren’t good compost generators. Compost needs air and space. You don’t want to compress compost while it’s decaying. Landfills compress and cover waste. Their goal is to minimize the size of waste at a location.

      1. Compost also needs to be turned or stirred occasionally.

    2. Make more profit weekly… This is an awesome side job for anybody… Best part about it is that you can work from comfort of your house and earn 100-2000 dollars every week … Apply for the job now and have your first check at the end of the week.

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  2. Nearly 40 percent of all food goes to waste; Americans wasted 133 billion pounds of food in 2010; and 40 million tons of food ends up in America’s landfills every year.

    And since the energy and money used to produce, process, and transport that wasted food is wasted, obviously the solution is to cut food production by nearly 40 percent.

  3. My own personal food waste has skyrocketed since my dog died. If you want to cut down on food waste, stop putting expiration dates on things. That’s when most of my stuff finds its way to the landfill burn can.

    1. I’m surprised food labels don’t come with descriptors like we see on medication. ‘May cause…’

  4. On the one hand businesses are greedy capitalists that only care about profit, and on the other hand they are so careless that they throw away food that could otherwise be sold for a profit. Can’t these government jackasses ever make up their minds?

    1. Many businesses used to try to give food away to shelters or homeless groups .. but then the government showed up.

  5. It seems like a good problem to have cheap food.

  6. “Winning on Reducing Food Waste”

    Another phrase added to phrases I hate.

    Winning nothing. The biggest wasters of all are the government. Instead of trying to ‘win’ on this, how’s about stop wasting money?

    Also. Why is food waste an “enormous problem”?

    1. Climate change, duh. Food waste produced greenhouse gasses. It takes lots of fossil fuels to produce food. Americans eat the wrong kinds of food anyway. Too much meat. And government waste doesn’t count because people in government have good intentions.

      1. Ah. Yes. Climate change. Is there anything it can’t do? Since 1988 James Hansen has been warning us with specific dates we’re all gonna die!

        The same ‘logic’ happens with public health. ‘We have to stop you from eating bad because you’re a drain on the public system’.

        I don’t even think people who say stupid things like this realize the degeneracy and evilness of what they spew.


        If an apple falls in an orchard. Does it make a sound? Is it waste? If I pick that apple, bring it home, dress it with a wig and teach it to speak Lithuanian and I don’t eat it but throw it in my back yard for failing to be sufficiently woke, is it waste?

        Behind the surreal nature of my example, there’s a serious point I’m trying to make.

        1. If an apple falls in an orchard[, i]s it waste?

          It’s tough to define “waste”, isn’t it, Rufus? I used to get into it with my mother over stuff like this. “Aren’t you going to finish your restaurant meal?” “Well, I’m paying for it, and I’ve had enough. Anyway, the beans are poorly prepared.” “What a waste! At least let me feed it to the birds!” “As you wish.” *** server gets plastic container and bag for Mom ***

          1. My friend had a good comeback to someone who chastised him for throwing out his sandwich saying ‘don’t you know there are kids starving in Africa? He replied, ‘and if I eat it how does that change anything?’

        2. One day I was driving home from work through an area with a bunch of apple trees, and I encountered a drunk moose stumbling around on the road. Happens pretty regularly this time of year. Moose and deer get wasted from consuming apples that have been fermenting on the ground. I’m surprised I’ve never heard any environmentalists or animal rights activists complain about it.

          1. They are setting up drunk tanks for birds in Canada.

  7. Food is about the only part of my budget that I can control. Everything else is pretty much fixed. Rent, student loans, electricity, internet, insurance, phone bill… So I do my best to not waste food. It isn’t that hard. I like to roast a chicken fairly often. Lots of good leftovers, and I turn all the scraps into stock which I freeze in an ice cube tray. That way I never have to open a can only to throw most of it away. Just grab a few cubes. I’ll make a batch of chili and have nachos the next day, and huevos ranchers the night after that. Leftover pasta sauce can be used to make a lasagna, which goes into the freezer for later. I like to incorporate meat into things instead of it being on the plate by itself. I make lots of stir fry dishes, like Thai curry. That stretches out the most expensive ingredient in the meal. I buy meat on sale and use my FoodSaver to freeze individual portions. I’ll eat dinner leftovers for breakfast rather than throw them away. Not much food is wasted in my house.

    1. We just make enough for one meal and then eat it all. It’s rare that I have leftovers, but if I do, they’re eaten rather quickly.

      1. That’s pretty much the way it is w me/us, but there are certain economies of scale (mostly time, sometimes purchase price) that sometimes come w cooking a big something or big pot of something.

        In recent yrs. I’ve found that economy reversed when it comes to chicken. Used to be cheaper to buy whole birds, now cheaper to buy packages of just the cheaper parts?sometimes even all the parts.

      2. I’m usually cooking for one, sometimes two, and it’s easier to use up ingredients before they go bad if I make enough for two or three meals at a time.

        1. That’s true, leading to the bachelor’s problem:

          1. Quick, cook it before it rots!

          2. Quick, eat it before it rots!

          Tends to lead to overeating. You can buy smaller packages of raw food, but more expensively.

          There’s also 1a & 2a: Quick, freeze it before it rots! But it’s not as good quality when you do that w raw meat, & takes away some spontaneity when you have to thaw stuff.

          Now, for the 1st time in my life, I’m routinely cooking for 2. Also, I’m shopping where the family pack of chicken legs. thighs, or drumsticks has a farther-out expir’n date.

          1. I get around it by having few ingredients on hand to spoil. Then they get rotated in. I may have potatoes and carrots. As they run out I get broccoli and switch to rice. Meanwhile I’ve used up my chicken and thaw out some pork. As the broccoli runs out I buy some spinach. Then cook some pasta. Lots of rotation and overlap. Takes some creativity and food management. But I don’t throw much away.

    2. “Leftover” pasta sauce? You just mean “unused”? Or are you actually scraping it off your plate into the lasagna?

      1. So when you refer to “leftovers” you mean stuff you scraped off of your plate? Gross. Were you raised in a cave?

        1. Unless you’re making your own, I can’t imagine pasta sauce being left over. You pour what you need out of the jar, put the rest back in the refrigerator. Am I missing something?

          1. Oh, that makes sense. I cook almost everything from scratch, or as close to it as I can manage. So when I say pasta sauce I mean browning Italian sausage, onion, and garlic, adding jarred tomatoes, simmering for a couple hours, and finishing with fresh herbs like basil and oregano. Then I stretch the leftover with some canned tomato sauce, and use it to make a lasagna for the freezer. Sorry about the confusion.

            1. My hat if I wore one would be off to you, ambitious one! I make my own pizza dough, but not the sauce. I started making pizza when I wondered what to do w the remaining half packet of yeast from making apple wine. My homemade pizza comes out better to me than from any pizzeria, but the slightly crunchy vegetables I like on it (even as I run out of teeth) aren’t to everyone’s taste.

              I’ve frozen tomato sauce about twice in my life when I bought too big a jar or can & wasn’t using it fast enough. Unfortunately mold is psychrophilic so I didn’t extend the sauce’s useful life much.

              I am thinking about using the last tomato here by straining the juice to flavor the pizza dough (where I’ve been using garlic & herbs), and using the rest as part of the sauce. When I just dice the tomato as part of topping, the pizza comes out soggy in the topping.

              1. Pizza is something I leave to the professionals. And to people who can provide the massive amount of heat to do it right. If I had a brick oven I could heat up to 700 degrees and didn’t care how much it cost, I might cook my own pizza. But I don’t. So I don’t. Same with deep fried foods and stuff that is smoked. I have had some training and have cooked for a living, so I’m very comfortable in a kitchen. I can duplicate lots of restaurant food at home. But only with the equipment I have. Pizza oven I do not have.

  8. OT:
    We need to get money out of politics!

    “Bloomberg spending $9 million to help two House Dems in California”
    “The investments only add to the record amount of money being spent this midterm election cycle.”

    But it’s different if the money is “an investment”.

    1. This is terrific news. Clearly Bloomberg understands the importance of making the #BlueTsunami as big as possible.

      Also, it illustrates why I’m a left-libertarian rather than a progressive. Most progressives dislike the idea of “rich people buying elections,” whereas I think politically active billionaires are great. Especially since so many of them support immigration (Koch Brothers) and Democrats (Bloomberg, Soros).


    2. Ah, yes, Bloomberg. Another chance to post this.

    3. Haven’t you heard?

      Only money spent by the eeevuuul Koch’s counts as buying or influencing elections.

      When Soros, Bloomberg, Steyer, etc. spend huge amounts trying to influence elections, that’s just legitimate freedom of speech and democracy at it’s finest!

  9. Soups/stews, salads, stir fries, freeze ripe fruit for smoothies. Great way to get rid of leftovers.

  10. Whole apples are delicious, the texture can’t be beat, and the physical act of biting in and licking up the dripping juices is unique to apples. But therein lies the problem — good apples are juicy and your fingers end up sticky, not to mention dripping on your clothes and furniture. Yes, you can eat apples so daintily that you avoid the drip, but that also cuts the fun in half.

    Then there’s the size of apples. Are you hungry enough for a full apple? Different varieties come in different sizes. School kids may not want to eat a full apple as part of a lunch.

    Apple slices solve both these problems.

    1. What are genetically-engineered seedless mini-apples, chopped liver?

    2. Lately I’ve found jars of applesauce to pay off in the long run vs. using apples in roasting.

  11. A recent law-review comment highlights its shortcomings, including particularly that the law itself hasn’t convinced everyone that they won’t get sued if they donate food.

    The probably states they can’t be convicted of a crime for donating food. That’s not the same as not being sued for it. Plenty of times people have been sued for doing something that wasn’t a crime in the first place. It’s the mere threat of a lawsuit that changes peoples behavior.

  12. The United States should follow the lead of countries that have virtually no food waste like Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea.

  13. Some food waste isn’t going away – unless you breed a boneless, skinless chicken.

    The writer starts with perfectly good points, like our grotesque farm subsidies and school lunch policies, but then enters bizzaro moral panic land: “bartenders in the city are increasingly reducing food waste by crafting cocktails that contain food scraps that might otherwise go to waste.” Yeah, nimrod, that will lessen our food waste by a few million tons.

  14. Methane is valuable. It’s not so much food waste that’s the problem, but methane waste.

    Still not “an enormous problem”, though.

  15. did not realize Sonny Perdue had a federal appointment. he’s the magnanimous former governor of Georgia who promised to veto Sunday alcohol sales so his lowly dumb constituents could learn “time management.”

    wonder if he’s learned anything about the Constitution since then

  16. Perdue’s own agency is responsible for causing massive amounts of food waste under its National School Lunch Program

    My guess is that most of the food waste there is veggies and fruits. Not dessert or chicken nuggets.

    In which case, the real issue is not ‘waste’. It’s how can schools teach kids to be interested in eating veggies/fruits. My guess is schools don’t even share info on things-that-work – they just do dumb-ass top-down mandates.

  17. People have a lot of incentive to not waste food because it is wasted money, both for business and for the consumer. I suspect that the “40% of food wasted” stat is like the 1 in 4 rape victims stat: made up. Do they count that you throw away the chicken bones, the potato peels, the bread ends? There is certainly nothing like 40% of the food in my house being waste.
    As to school lunch program waste: they want to force kids to eat veggies when a) the kids don’t want to and b) the school veggies are inedible as cooked. So yeah, waste because they are busy-bodies. I bet on pizza day there is no waste at all.

  18. A big problem is that expiration dates on packaged foods are not often easy to find or even readable. We also stick a can in the back of the pantry until too late.

    Here’s a relatively easy way to solve it. Require food producers, manufacturers and canners to include an expiration date on each item in the form of a scannable area on the label that a phone app can read and add to a database, which in turn can notify you a set amount of time before the product expires.

    Lots of manufacturers already put QR codes on their products for marketing purposes; this kind of code would be far more helpful to the consumer.

  19. Where I live, food that’s passed its expiration date, or failed a sniff test, can *always* be left out for the possums. It’s *never* wasted. Something about the unique metabolism of the Virginia Opossum makes it immune to the bacteria that cause food poisoning in humans. Filthy though the animals are, they don’t carry bacteria long enough to spread them unless you get closer than anyone with a normal sense of smell would get; they only present a health hazard to horses.

    The food waste problem occurs when farms aren’t allowed to sell perfectly good fruit and vegetables that don’t meet standards for how these foods are supposed to look. They might have grown in goofy-looking shapes. There are varieties of apples, tomatoes, etc., that are prized by connoisseurs but considered too “ugly” to meet supermarket standards–sometimes because they’re too sweet and juicy to have good shelf life expectancies. Then there are the ordinary cucumbers that grew too big for “pickling size” but not big enough for “slicing size,” so what can you do with them? On a small farm you eat them for lunch, and they’re fresher and better than the cucumbers in the supermarket. On big farms you may be ordered to throw them on the ground to rot. Supermarkets don’t sell the “ugly” fruit and veg, and commercial canneries reject them because they don’t run through the machines properly.

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