(UPDATED COVERAGE, Feb. 26) More than 30% of U.S. food available at the retail and consumer levels goes uneaten, and the ratio of loss is even greater for fresh fruits and vegetables.
With a 19% share of total food loss, vegetables are the second largest source of U.S. food loss after meat, poultry and fish (30% share), according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fresh fruit accounts for 13.9% of total food waste, according to the USDA.
The study estimated food loss at the retail and consumer levels in the U.S. at 133 billion pounds in 2010, or 31% of the 430 billion pounds of total available food.
The USDA’s Economic Research Service study said retail losses account for 10% (43 billion pounds) of the total food supply; the USDA pegs consumer-level losses at 21% (90 billion pounds) of the total available food supply.
The fresh fruit supply in the U.S. in 2010 totaled 37.6 billion pounds. Losses of fresh fruit at retail totaled 4.4 billion pounds, or 9% of total fresh fruit supply. The USDA said consumer level losses of fresh fruit were 9.5 billion pounds, 25% of the total fresh fruit supply. Taken together, retail and consumer losses for fresh fruit were 13.9 billion pounds, or 37% of total fresh fruit supply.
Total retail and consumer losses of fresh vegetables totaled 18 billion pounds, or 34% of the total fresh vegetable supply of 53.5 billion pounds. Retail losses of fresh vegetables are pegged at 5.2 billion pounds, or 10% of the total fresh vegetable supply. Consumer-level losses were 12.8 billion pounds, or 24% of the total fresh vegetable supply.
Report authors Jean Buzby, Hodan Wells and Jeffrey Hyman said the U.S. or any other country cannot entirely eliminate food waste. The researchers also said that data on exactly where, why and how food losses and waste occur — and the economic incentives to reduce these losses — is unavailable.
Still, they said food loss can be trimmed, perhaps by industry-led initiatives or government-led policies, such as information campaigns and additional changes in federal laws.
“In the end, economic incentives and consumer behavior will be paramount in reducing food loss,” according to the report.
The issue of food loss and food waste has been a topic within the Produce Marketing Association's Field to Fork blog, said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Newark, Del.-based PMA. “We don’t have consumer oriented materials, but we are providing resources to our members on food waste,” she said.
The PMA’s Fresh Summit expo had a session on food waste last year, including the perspective of the Food Waste Prevention Alliance, Means said. Some industry operators have begun to install anaerobic digesters to reduce food and to limit what goes to the landfill. More clarity by consumers about what use-by dates mean may also be needed to reduce food waste, Means said.