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Food waste costing economy $100 billion, study finds
Scripps Howard News Service


August 10, 2005

It's just a matter of time before those staggering hikes in oil prices are translated into higher costs for food, reflecting the higher costs farmers pay for running diesel harvesters and using oil-based fertilizers and pesticides.

Timothy Jones, a University of Arizona archaeologist, says that makes the results of his studies of how much food is lost and thrown away very timely.

Food waste at a glance
Scripps Howard News Service

Studies by the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology provide the following estimates of food thrown away:

Households: About 467 pounds of food a year ends up in the garbage. About 14 percent is food in its original packaging that is not out of date, 16 percent are grains, 13 percent is meat, 23 percent is fruit, and 25 percent is vegetables.

Commercial Retail Food Loss: About 27 million tons of food are discarded each year. More than 26 percent of food served at convenience stores is thrown away, 10 percent of food at fast-food restaurants is discarded, 3 percent of food at full-service restaurants goes in the garbage and less than 1 percent at supermarkets is trashed.

Farm: Weather, deterioration or neglect results in losses of about 29 percent of the citrus crop, 18 percent of the vegetables and about 12 percent of the apples.

For the last eight years, Jones has spearheaded a government-financed study that has documented how more than 40 percent of food grown in the United States is lost or thrown away - at a cost of at least $100 billion annually to the economy and over-taxing the soil and environment.

He said Americans - from the farm to the kitchen - aren't aware of the huge amounts of food losses, and cooks often don't think about the food they waste. Jones said even the experts were wrong - by a factor of two, in fact - in guessing how much food is lost through the food chain, and he said at least half of the food discarded isn't really bad and could have been safely consumed.

"We've lost touch with food," said Jones at his Tucson office of the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology. "People are totally unaware of food; it's true of everybody from the citrus industry to the person who takes a plate of spaghetti and meatballs they could have kept and instead throw it away."

Jones said Americans believe in the myth that food is cheap and plentiful. But he argued it's not cheap considering the labor and effort taken to grow it, and the costs of fuel to harvest and bring it to market. He also argued that there are no easily used lands left for new farms, and there are environmental costs from depleting soils and soil erosion that comes with intensive farming.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 12 percent of today's average household budget goes to buying food, but Jones said those estimates were made before the price of oil tripled from $20 a barrel last year to more than $60 a barrel currently.

Those oil-price increases, he said, will soon be translated into higher costs for food as oil is used not only to make diesel for tractors and harvesters, but also is the base from which fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are made.

"I think we're looking at 15 to 20 percent of household budgets in a few years because of these energy costs," he said, pointing out that people can save money by throwing less away.

The food industry is increasingly aware of the costs of throwing away products headed for the market, which is affecting profit margins.

"Huge, staggering dollars are lost" to discarded produce, said Ron McCormick, vice president for produce for the giant supermarket chain Wal-Mart. He said it's not unusual for boxes of perishable produce to be misplaced in huge warehouses even while shelves in stores are empty and customers have to shop elsewhere.

McCormick said Wal-Mart is relying on new radio-controlled frequency chips to sort out its backroom problems and to try to ensure that a stream of fresh produce is always available for sale.

There are also large losses in restaurant salad and buffet bars. Mickey Dedajic, an 18-year-old immigrant who lived off rotting potatoes and rice during the siege of Sarajevo more than a decade ago, said he's astonished at the waste of food in America after working as a waiter and bus boy at an Alexandria, Va., hotel.

"Most of the time we run out of food, and there's more food in the garbage than on the buffet," he said. "People just aren't thinking about it."

While previous USDA studies looked at plate waste to judge the amount of food discarded, Jones examined garbage from stores and people who volunteered for the study all over the country, weighing the discarded materials and segregating it into food categories.

The losses from households were an eye-opener, he said. About 14 percent of the garbage involved perfectly good food that was in its original packaging and not out of date.

"I just don't understand this," said Jones. He suggested that bulk purchases at discount stores are resulting in people having too much food they are not used to keeping, and so are just throwing unopened portions away. About 34 percent of discarded edible food was dry-packaged goods, and 19 percent canned goods that keep a long time.

Another surprise from the study involved losses at fast-food restaurants, which publicly boast of their efficiency. Almost 10 percent of the food in fast-food restaurants was thrown out, the study found.

Jones said this was due to the inadequacies of refrigerators in stores. He said the fast-food industry moved to a "just-in-time" delivery system from company-owned regional warehouses in the last decade, instead of relying on local suppliers. But Jones said many fast-food stores had difficulties adjusting the delivery of food supplies in time for customers lining up in the drive-through lanes, and the individual stores lacked adequate refrigerators to store supplies.

The study found that large fast-food chains were more efficient than smaller chains. At some of the smaller chains, up to 50 percent of food was discarded. Jones concluded this high loss was due to high turnovers of novice store managers, who ordered too much food and misjudged how many customers they would have.

More than a quarter of the food prepared at convenience stores is discarded. Jones explained this is usually pizza or hot dogs that are cooked and kept under hot lights or on a grill until they are sold, or look unappetizing.

He said the massive waste costs the fast-food industry $30 billion to $35 billion a year and could be solved by redesigning stores to include proper storage areas and refrigerators. "By spending $50 million to $60 million, they could save $5 billion," he said.

Jones said the industry has made strides in storing and transporting fresh produce from the farm to the store with little losses. But Jones said that, at the farm level, the waste involved in putting together pre-prepared salads and sliced carrots has boosted produce losses from 3 percent to 10 percent. And his surveys found that about 10 percent of the broccoli, cauliflower and celery crops are left rotting in the fields. About 29 percent of the citrus crop is lost each year, largely because of the neglect of oranges.

Just reducing waste by a quarter would mean a $25 billion injection into the economy, Jones said.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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