Grocery shopping, you stand in the dairy section. The milk in front is dated three days out, but you see the milk toward the back is dated ten days out. You push aside the “three-day” milk and grab a half-gallon of the organic, one-percent “ten-day” milk. You may have just contributed to “food waste.” If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, behind only China and the United States.
While food waste has been an issue for some time (the statistic above has been circulating since at least 2011), the last 18 months have seen the United States government taking a more active role in the subject. In October 2018, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), (collectively, the Agencies) signed a formal agreement increasing their collaboration and coordination regarding the reduction of food waste as part of a newly announced Winning on Reducing Food Waste initiative (Federal Agreement).
In April of last year the Agencies released a new federal food waste reduction strategy prioritizing six main areas for action and also entered into a formal agreement with ReFED, Inc., a multi-stakeholder nonprofit dedicated to reducing food waste. Then, just last October, the Agencies entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (FWRA MOU) with the founding partners of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, viz. the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the National Restaurant Association (Restaurant Association), collectively, the FWRA Parties.
With a new federal strategy and three formal agreements in less than 18 months, it appears that the United States is increasing its focus on efforts to reduce food waste.
EPA defines “food loss” and “food waste” as follows:
- Food loss refers to unused product from the agricultural sector, such as unharvested crops.
- Food waste refers to food such as plate waste (e., food that has been served but not eaten), spoiled food, or peels and rinds considered inedible that is sent to feed animals, to be composted or anaerobically digested, or to be landfilled or combusted with energy recovery.
Similarly, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) provides these definitions:
- Food loss is the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers and consumers.
- Food waste refers to the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers.
Further with Food: Center for Food Loss and Waste Solutions, a public-private partnership composed of numerous entities, including FMI, GMA, Restaurant Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), USDA, EPA, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), combines food loss and waste (FLW) into one category and defines it simply as “food that is not eaten by people, for whatever reason.” This is consistent with the approach taken by the Food Loss & Waste Protocol, a global multi-stakeholder partnership, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, FAO and WRI, whose “FLW Standard” allows users to select what combination of material types and destinations make up their definition of “food loss or waste.”
Because “food waste” implies that the food no longer has value and needs to be managed as waste, some groups or agencies, including EPA and NRDC use the term “wasted food,” instead of “food waste,” for food that was not used for its intended purpose because it conveys that a valuable resource is being wasted.
According to EPA, 30-40% of all available food in the United States is wasted. EPA goes on to say:
- 76 billion pounds per year of food reaches landfills and combustion facilities, more than any other material in everyday trash, constituting 22% of municipal solid waste. Landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States.
- Food waste not only impacts landfill space and emissions, it also affects the United States economy. USDA estimates the value of food loss for retailers and consumers each year to be over $161 billion. [U.S. News & World Report recently reported this number is more likely $240 billion.]
- Globally, food loss and waste have a combined carbon footprint of 4.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to FAO.
- Food waste consumes 21% of all fresh water globally.
In the Federal Agreement, in which they announced the Winning on Reducing Waste initiative, the Agencies stated:
“In order to reduce food loss and waste, it will take the entire supply chain including farms, processors, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, universities, schools, landfills, federal, state, tribal and local governments, faith-based institutions, environmental organizations, and communities working together to achieve innovative solutions.”
The Agencies recently partnered with the FWRA Parties because the latter “represent three major sectors of the supply chain and as such represent a vital link in efforts to reduce food loss and waste.” Together, the parties intend to further the Winning on Reducing Waste initiative, including by educating and engaging the food manufacturing, retail and food service industries to reduce food waste.
ReFED, meanwhile, has identified 27 of the best opportunities to reduce food waste through a detailed economic analysis. These “solutions,” as characterized by ReFED, track EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy—which prioritizes prevention first, then recovery and finally recycling. For example, by standardizing food label dates, including eliminating visible “sell by” dates, to reduce consumer confusion, ReFED estimates $4,547 per ton in financial benefits.
According to ReFED, if their proposed solutions are implemented, they could save 1.6 trillion gallons of water annually, reduce 18 million tons of GHG emissions annually and generate $10 billion of economic value.
In 2015, EPA and USDA, in alignment with Target 12.3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, announced the first-ever domestic goal to reduce food loss and waste by half by the year 2030. Since then, 29 businesses—six announced just this month—have made a public commitment to reduce food loss and waste in their own operations in the United States by 50% by the year 2030.
ReFED has hosted a Food Waste Summit for the past two years and plans to host a summit again in 2020. Last year, 405 attendees (food businesses, investors, foundations, nonprofits, government agencies, innovators and academics) from 9 different countries and 34 states participated in the summit, focusing on the goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030.
On the state, local, tribal and territorial levels, at least 34 government organizations have pledged to work with federal partners to build upon efforts to address food loss and waste.
And about your milk? A Canadian company has developed an app that allows consumers the ability to buy food approaching its “best before” date at a discount. So, rather than grabbing the ten-day milk, you might have opted for the three-day milk, assuring it wouldn’t become food waste (unless it goes bad in your fridge!).