Cat Urbigkit: Food Waste Claims Don’t Add Up

in Cat Urbigkit/Column

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Americans have been getting a message hammered at us in the last few years about how consumers are wasting so much food. It’s a big deal, and we’ve got to reduce the amount of food waste that we are generating in our households. While I agree that it’s good to reduce the amount of waste we produce, I’ve always doubted the claims about how much is wasted.

The first edition of the New York Times (NYT) in 2023 included an article on How Central Ohio Got People to Eat Their Leftovers, which began with this claim: The average U.S. household wastes nearly a third of the food it buys. 

That’s a shocking claim that frankly doesn’t pass the common-sense test. The household I live in most certainly doesn’t waste one third of the food we purchase. Plus, since we have a variety of domestic animals, most of our household food waste is consumed by the livestock (which are food animals), so I don’t consider it a waste at all. 

A few more paragraphs into the same article were other startling claims: “In the United States, food waste is responsible for twice as many greenhouse gas emissions as commercial aviation …” and  “Households account for 39 percent of food waste in the United States, more than restaurants, grocery stores or farms.”

Holy smokes! More greenhouse gas emissions than commercial aviation? Households generate more food waste than restaurants, grocery stores or farms? What the heck? Where did this information come from? 

Methodology is everything when it comes to claims of legitimacy, so I did some digging into what was being measured, and how that information was used to develop claims that American consumers are “wasting” so much food.

I followed the NYT link to a website operated by ReFed, which makes other startling claims, including: “In the U.S., a staggering 35% of all food goes unsold or uneaten – almost 90 billion meals’ worth of food annually.” 

The first thing you need to know is that included in these claims are not just foods but inedible parts of foods such as bones, vines, rinds, pits and peels, eggshells, etc. – things that the average American household can do nothing about. I quickly learned that some claims of “food waste” include everything that isn’t consumed by a human in the household, and make no distinction whether it is dumped or landfilled, donated to a food bank, used as animal food, converted to industrial use, or composted.

To develop its estimates of food waste in America, ReFed uses a model in which it takes a series of data points to make calculations for every state, year and food type to develop its claim for the amount of household waste generated nationwide.

One of the data sources ReFED uses is from a volunteer project conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC Kitchen Diaries project was conducted in late 2016 and involved one week of food and beverage diaries by 613 households in the cities of New York City, Denver, and Nashville.

Beside the problem of the small sample size, I am unconvinced that these households serve as a good representation of food habits of the broad expanse of American households since these diaries were primarily completed by white, metropolitan women between the ages of 37 and 44 who claimed to compost 46% of their food waste. 

From its kitchen diaries project, NRDC reported that “six of the top ten most commonly wasted edible foods in households were the same in all three cities: coffee, milk, apples, bread, potatoes and pasta.” Ignoring the other items on the list, let’s focus on coffee, which generates coffee grounds as its waste product.

I maintain that including coffee as “food” is not legitimate. Because coffee doesn’t contain significant amounts of nutrients, it has virtually no nutritional value – in fact, that’s why coffee is not required to have nutritional labels. It’s a beverage, and coffee grounds are not a “commonly wasted edible food.”

Food loss is not food waste

Federal agencies also used various outrageous claims about consumer food waste. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) website states: “In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30–40 percent of the food supply. This figure, based on estimates from USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010.”

I looked at the ERS 2010 publication cited by FDA and learned what FDA reported on its website is flat wrong. The ERS reported that 31% of the “available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten,” and specifically noted, “This report calculates the amount and value of food loss in the United States. It does not calculate the amount and value of food waste or the other subcomponents of food loss.” But FDA called it food waste, not food loss. It’s an important difference.

Food loss is the amount of postharvest edible food available for human consumption that is not consumed for any reason (including cooking loss and shrinkage, loss from mold or pests, plate waste, etc.). Food waste is a component of food loss, such as when an edible item goes unconsumed, including food discarded by retailers due to blemishes, or plate waste discarded by consumers. 

The ERS noted it had “found that food loss is economically efficient in some cases. There is a practical limit to how much food loss the United States or any other country could realistically prevent, reduce, or recover for human consumption” given the perishable nature of most foods and food storage, the time needed to deliver food products to various destinations, consumer habits, and economic factors.

The ERS report included important statements about food loss that are neglected in making the claims about consumer food waste.

For example: “Some food loss is inevitable because food is inherently perishable and some food needs to be discarded to ensure food safety. For example, some unsold or uneaten food at restaurants, supermarkets, or in homes is not suitable for consumption. Some losses—like the discard of moldy fruit from the produce shelf at the supermarket and the condemnation of diseased animals at the slaughtering house—are necessary to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of the food supply. Such foods are not recoverable for human use. Likewise at restaurants, plate scraps not taken home by patrons are appropriately discarded out of health considerations. Legal liability and strict food safety rules, such as those in the wake of the mad cow disease scare, inhibit food recovery and redistribution in some cases. Discarding unsafe food and food suspected of being unsafe reduces the individual and societal costs of foodborne illness and, in some cases, the potential legal liability.”

Like the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is making similar claims about the wastefulness of consumer households: “Most people don’t realize how much food they throw away every day — from uneaten leftovers to spoiled produce to parts of fruits and vegetables that could be eaten or repurposed. One-third of all food in the United States goes uneaten. EPA estimates that in 2018, about 81 percent – 20.3 tons – of households’ wasted food ended up in landfills or combustion facilities.”

I checked into the 2018 report cited by EPA and despite its “enhanced methodology,” found it used the word “food” to refer to both food and inedible parts of food, and defined “wasted food” as food “that not was not used for its intended purpose” – even if the food was donated to food banks to feed other people – as well as food diverted to feed animals, which I contend are not food wastes at all. Neither do other food researchers who have been critical of these food waste claims, and who assert that “As long as food does not end up in a landfill, it is not wasted.”

A paper led by food policy experts at the University of Minnesota found that “widely used definitions of food waste do not provide a coherent measure of food waste,” and overestimate the both the quantity of food waste and the value assigned to food waste. The paper notes that “the quantity of food waste is overestimated unless its measurement explicitly accounts for the potential recovery of food after food is removed from the supply chain.” 

The Minnesota paper noted, “If one is to believe the rhetoric put forth in recent years in various policy documents and media accounts, food waste is one of the—if not the—defining food policy issues of our time. … Yet unlike many other hot-button food policy issues, there is a dearth of credible empirical evidence on the extent, cost, and causes of food waste.”

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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