What is food waste and what is food loss?
And why are they important?
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food loss as the amount of edible food that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reason. This food loss would include cooking loss and natural shrinkage. It means loss from mold or pests or inadequate climate control.
Food waste is a component of food loss and it occurs when an edible item goes uneaten or unconsumed. It includes food being discarded by retailers due to an undesirable color or blemish or that it looks different. It also includes plate waste – or food discarded by consumers.
It must be noted that some food loss and food waste is unavoidable and, in fact, inevitable. Food is inherently perishable and some food needs to be discarded in order to ensure food safety. There is no question that some unsold food in supermarkets must be discarded if it has been on the shelves for too long and may not be suitable for consumption. We also know that at restaurants plate scraps not taken home by those who ordered it must be discarded out of health considerations. There are certain legal liability and strict food safety rules that inhibit some food recovery and redistribution in some cases. In other cases, food recovery and redistribution is an excellent source of “found resources” for local nonprofits.
While this website is dedicated to ending food waste and in so doing perhaps finding solutions to ending hunger, it must always be remembered that discarding unsafe food and food suspected of being unsafe is always a wise decision and it reduces the individual and societal costs of foodborne illness and, in some cases, the potential legal liability. Never serve or eat unsafe food or food that is suspected of being unsafe.
To repeat, food that gets spilled or spoils before it reaches its final product or retail stage is called food loss. It could have been a problem in harvesting, storage, packaging, transportation or other reasons.
If tomatoes that are being brought to the store or to the end user fall off a truck, this is considered food loss. Food that is fit for human consumption, but is not consumed is food waste. If a supermarket throws away brown-spotted bananas just because they don’t look quite right, for instance, this is considered food waste. Food waste is a component of food loss. The bottom line is when food that is perfectly good to eat is not eaten, that is wasted food.
Click the arrows to learn more about food waste and food loss.
Causes of Food Waste
At the store:
- Dented cans and damaged packaging. Inappropriate packaging that damages produce.
- Spillages, abrasion, bruising, excessive trimming, excessive or insufficient heat, inadequate storage, technical malfunction.
- Overstocking or overpreparing due to difficulty predicting number of customers.
- Culling blemished, misshapen, or wrong-sized foods in an attempt to meet consumer demand.
On the farm:
- Consumption or damage by insects, rodents, birds, or microbes.
- Damage by unfavorable or extreme weather.
- Diminishing returns when harvesting additional increments of production and other factors leading to leaving some edible crops unharvested.
- Overplanting or overpreparing due to difficulty predicting number of buyers/customers.
- Spillages, abrasion, bruising, excessive trimming, excessive or insufficient heat, inadequate storage, technical malfunction.
- Sprouting of grains and tubers, biological aging in fruit.
- Confusion over “use-by” and “best before” dates. Confusion on the part of consumers leads to a great deal of discarding even though the food is still safe to eat.
- Lack of knowledge about preparation and appropriate portion sizes.
- Industry or government standards may cause some products to be rejected for human consumption. For example, plate waste cannot be reused at restaurants.
- Psychological tastes, attitudes, and preferences leading to plate waste.
- There are also seasonal factors that factor into food waste. For example, more food is wasted in summer.
Expectations of Eliminating Food Waste
It is unrealistic to think that we can entirely eliminate food waste. There will always be mitigating factors that lead to the practical limit as to how much food we can realistically prevent, reduce, or recover for human consumption.
We know, for example, that many foods are quite perishable. As a result of this we have food safety issues and temperature considerations. We also have issues related to the storage of food that can account for not being able to eliminate food waste.
There is also the fact that it takes time to deliver food to new destinations and in the process food can become spoiled and therefore must be thrown out.
Also, our tastes, preferences and food habits play a role in food waste elimination. Buying food doesn’t necessarily mean that the end user will actually like the food and want to eat it. So much food is wasted as a result of consumer preference.
There are really two separate challenges in reducing food waste and loss: how to reduce the amount of uneaten food in the first place (prevention), and what do we do with the uneaten food once it is generated (disposal). If we can prevent food waste in the first place, the disposal of the waste becomes less of an issue.
So How Do I Reduce Food Waste and How Do I Prevent it in the First Place?
Let’s talk about the Three P’s when it comes to Preventing Food Waste: 1. Planning; 2.Preparation; 3. Plate Waste
The best way to reduce food waste is to prevent it from happening in the first place. There are some simple ways to prevent waste from happening that seem practical and practicable but may just slip our minds. It is worthwhile thinking about these ways before we purchase food. Look at your grocery list and make sure that the food you are buying (if it is perishable) will even be eaten in a reasonable time.
Reduce over-purchasing of food
At a Senior Nutrition Program or at a long-term care facility or at any other facility that feeds vulnerable people be sure to create guidelines or implement a system to ensure that you only purchase what you need when you need it. This could include a “just-in-time” ordering system or a new purchasing policy.
Reduce prep waste
Look at production and handling practices and work on strategies for reducing prep waste. Look at how your staff is handling food in the kitchen. Do they have the requisite knife skills so that waste is minimized at that stage of food prep. Look at strategies for purchasing pre-cut food to minimize what gets discarded. A strategy to reduce batch sizes when reheating foods such as soups or sauces needs to be implemented at your program or facility. And there needs to be proper staff training to reduce improperly cooked food.
Another way to reduce prep waste is to figure out a model for re-purposing excess food. For example, leftover bread can easily become croutons for the next days’ meal. Leftover fruit that is edible can be used as a dessert topping and don’t forget that vegetable trimmings can always help form a base for soups, sauces, and stocks.
Finally, when we are looking at prep waste we always need to think about proper storage techniques. To reduce spoilage, food products must be stored in proper conditions. Temperatures must be monitored to consistently ensure food safety. Food needs also to be organized in such a way as to ensure that older products are used first. Foods at the back of the refrigerator have a tendency to be overlooked and, therefore, oftentimes wasted.
Reduce Plate Waste
Once food reaches the consumer and is not eaten, this is plate waste. For most of us this amounts to just wasted food. However, to those who are most vulnerable, this amounts to nutrients that are vital to the health and well being of these individuals. Those nutrients are meant as life-sustaining elements for these people who may be receiving just one meaningful meal a day.
- Modify menus. If there is a great deal of plate waste on a particular day, that would probably mean that there is something that is being served that is not desired by a significant number of consumers. Therefore, it would make sense to question those seniors who are not eating the particular food item and adjust the menu accordingly. Oftentimes, just asking seniors which items they like and which they do not will help with menu modifications.
- Change serving sizes. Improper serving sizes usually amount to a great deal of food waste. By reducing the serving size while still satisfying the appetite, and/or using an “ask first” policy for side dishes, will make a considerable dent in the amount of food waste being generated in the senior center or facility.
- Modify the size of garnishes. Sometimes small garnishes not eaten account for a significant amount of food waste. Garnishes are often used for taste reasons, but if they are not being eaten, they are producing food waste. Avoid serving rarely eaten garnishes, or reduce the amount of the garnish. The best option might be to ask if the senior even wants the garnish. Then it can be put on top of the food to the taste of the consumer.
- Encourage seniors not to waste. By talking to seniors about food waste and explaining the consequences of wasted food, the senior is a partner in the food waste reduction strategy. Knowledge about the issue is a powerful weapon against waste.
Benefits of Reducing Food Waste and Wasted Food
Saves money. When you buy less food you save money.
Makes people happy. When you put things on the menu that people actually want (because you found this out from talking to the clients), they will be happier and eat the food that is actually on their plates.
Reduces methane emissions. When food waste gets to a landfill it produces methane gas. Composted food waste helps to lower your carbon footprint and thus reduces methane gas emissions.
Conserves energy and resources. Reducing food waste helps to prevent pollution involved in the growing, manufacturing, transporting, and selling of food.
Supports your community. By both donating food and also by growing food from composted food waste, more people can be fed. These are the great benefits to any community and community initiatives that everyone can become actively involved in and contribute to in one way or another.
Ways to Reduce Wasted Food
- Before you go to the grocery store take a look in your own refrigerator. Cook or eat what you already have before you go shopping for more food.
- Plan your menu before you go shopping and buy only those things on that menu.
- Buy only what you realistically need and will use. Buying in bulk only saves money if you are able to use the food before it spoils. If, however, you are preparing meals for a larger number of people (like at a congregate dining facility), purchasing in bulk makes a great deal of dollars and cents. Your program can save a lot of money by using a food cooperative or a buying club.
- If safe and healthy, use edible parts of food that you would normally not eat like beet tops and other vegetable scraps that can be used for soups or sauces.
- Find out how to store fruits and vegetables so they stay fresh longer inside or outside your refrigerator.
- Freeze, preserve, or can surplus fruits and vegetables – especially abundant seasonal produce.
- Compost food scraps: don’t throw them away and have them end up in landfills.
For donation: Excess food including raw and prepared food. You need to confirm what categories of food the local food bank or shelter is equipped to receive.
For animal feed: Includes fruits, vegetables, and breads. Scraps should be free from contact with any meat or other animal products during preparation. Always use clean utensils and cutting boards. Plate scrapings should not be included. Meat, poultry, fish, gravy, grease from cooking and dairy products should be kept away from food scraps for animal feed.
For composting: Spoiled produce, produce preparation scraps (potato peels, corn husks, etc.), flower trimmings, coffee grounds, and other organic materials accepted by local composters.
For recycling: Aluminum beverage cans, aluminum foil and foil food trays. Steel food containers. Tin food containers. Bi-metal cans (tin-coated steel). Plastics, including #1PET and PETE (water and soft drink bottles, peanut butter jars, etc.), #4 LDPE (squeezable bottles, container lids, stretch film, garbage bags, etc.), and #5 PP (yogurt and margarine containers, medicine bottles, bottle caps, etc.).
Targeted wastes may need to be refined due to local solid waste management infrastructure and recycling opportunities. Examples of material typically found might include:
- Vegetable and fruit materials
- Spoiled food products
- Wet and waxed cardboard
- Paper towels, paper
- Wood pieces
- Flowers, plants, soil
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Deli and bakery products
- Food preparation scraps
- Grocery and frozen foods
- Plastic containers
Trash (non-recyclable/non-compostable materials
- Food packaging/wrap
- Plastic gloves
- Twist ties
- Rubber bands
- Plastic tableware
- Candy wrappers
- Rope, twine
- Mixed trash
What if the “sell by” date has expired? Shouldn’t I throw it out?
One of the biggest reasons that people have for throwing out food is because of the labels that appear on their food. They see words like “sell-by” or “best-by” and don’t quite know what they mean but feel that it is an encouragement to throw out food. The reality is that the labels differ widely from state to state and they become confusing and oftentimes useless. In fact, there are labels that are meant largely for retailers (sell-by) and labels that are targeted to consumers (best if used by).
The problem with these labels is that they don’t really signify the safety of food. One can infer freshness and even quality when reading these labels, but that might not be accurate either.
Most consumers have no idea what these labels actually mean. As a result, we are throwing away food in record quantities that could be safely eaten. An enormously large percentage of consumers throw away food once it reaches the “sell-by” date, and that is not even the intent of the label.
The United States Department of Agriculture has the definitive answers about food product dating. Here are their fact sheets on food product dating:
What is dating?
“Open Dating” (use of a calendar date as opposed to a code) on a food product is a date stamped on a product’s package to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It can also help the purchaser to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date. After the date passes, while it may not be of best quality, refrigerated products should still be safe if handles properly and kept at 40 degrees F or below for the recommended storage times listed below. If a product has a “use-by” date, follow that date. If the product has a “sell-by” date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the chart below.
Is dating required by federal law?
Except for infant formula, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations. However, if a calendar date is used, it must express both the month and day of the month (and the year, in the case of shelf-stable and frozen products). If a calendar date is shown, immediately adjacent to the date must be a phrase explaining the meaning of that date such as “sell-by” or “use before.”
There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.
What types of food are dated?
Open dating is found primarily on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. “Closed” or “coded” dating might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food.
Types of dates
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
- A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The manufacturer of the product has determined the date.
- “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.
Safety After Date Expires
Except for “use-by” dates, product dates don’t always pertain to home storage (or program storage) and use after purchase. “Use-by” dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. Even if the date expires during home or program storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly. If a product has a “sell-by” date or no date, cook or freeze the product according to the times on the chart presented here.
Foods can develop an odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food has, in fact, developed these characteristics, DO NOT USE it.
If foods are mishandled, foodborne bacteria can grow and, if pathogens are present, cause foodborne illness – before or after the date on the package.
What About Those Codes on Cans?
Cans must exhibit a packing code in order to enable tracking of the product in interstate commerce. That coding enables manufacturers to rotate their stock. It also allows manufacturers to locate their products in the event of a recall.
These codes, which appear as a series of letters and/or numbers, might refer to the date or time of manufacture. They are not meant for the consumer to interpret as “use-by” dates.
Cans may also display “open” or calendar dates. Usually these are “best if used by” dates for peak quality.
Canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to freeing temperatures or temperatures above ninety degrees Fahrenheit. It the cans look ok, they are safe to use. Discard cans that are dented, rusted, or swollen. High-acid canned foods, such as tomatoes and fruits, will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid canned foods such as meats and vegetables will keep their best quality for 2 to 5 years.
What About Egg Cartons?
Use of either a “Sell-By” or “Expiration” date is not federally required. States, however, may require the “Sell-By” or “Expiration” dates. The egg laws in the state where the eggs are marketed would govern this. Some state egg laws do not allow the use of a “Sell-By” date.
Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield on them must display the “pack date” (the day that the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton). The number is a three-digit code that represents the consecutive day of the year starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365. When a “Sell-By” date appears on a carton bearing the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 45 days from the date of pack.
Always purchase eggs before the “Sell-By” or “Exp” date on the carton. After the eggs reach home, refrigerate the eggs in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. For best quality, use eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of the date you purchase them. The “Sell-By” date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use.
Since product dates aren’t a guide for safe use of a product, how long can the consumer store the food and still use it at top quality?
Follow these USDA tips:
- Purchase the product before the date expires.
- If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can’t use it within times recommended on the following chart.
- Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.
- Follow handling recommendations on the product.
- Consult the following storage chart.
- If product has a “Use-By” date, follow that date.
- If product has a “Sell-BY” or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the following chart.