Report: U.S. trashes 40 percent of food

community bbq

This little piggy went to market, then to a smoker. (Photo courtesy of Steven H. Walker)

If divorce or some other disaster has ever forced you to do your own grocery shopping, you may have noticed the “sell by” stamps on food.

Or, maybe you’ve seen the “best by” dates emblazoned on ice cream.

The mishmash of dates does little but confuse consumers, according to a report by The Washington Post.

It contributes to this sad statistic: About 40 percent of all food grown in the United States is thrown away.

A Harvard study alleges better date labelling would reduce food waste and maybe feed a few hungry people like that guy at the top of the exit ramp holding the cardboard sign.

The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead To Food Waste In America” says if a third of the food currently wasted was redistributed, it could provide the entire diet of every “food insecure” person in the United States.

The federal government has never instituted a uniform system of food dates, so, in the 1970s, states began to fill the vacuum with their own patchwork set of rules.

Georgia, for example, does not require dates be placed on meat, but Alabama does. New Hampshire and Georgia are the only states to explicitly single out pre-wrapped sandwiches for regulation, the study says.

Nine states have no food date regulations at all.

The primary audience of “sell by” dates on food packaging is not consumers, but retailers who use them to rotate inventory and, perhaps, to encourage more frequent purchases of milk and eggs.

Twenty-five percent of those surveyed believe the “sell by” date indicates the last day food is safe to eat. But, if stored properly, most foods are perfectly edible long after the date on the packaging.

Writers of the study suggest labels be replaced by a “freeze by” date, which would greatly extend perceived shelf life. They also suggest Congress come up with a mandatory and uniform system of labelling.

Even Libertarians, who find most government regulation as troubling as termites with banjos, might think that’s a good idea.

21 comments Add your comment

Dr. Socrates

September 29th, 2013
11:52 am

I am one of the few people who always–without exception, even if I don’t like the food–cleans his plate. I even eat slightly out of date food. I tell my kids that you don’t want to leave food on your plate lest some homeless person rummaging through our garbage finds a morsel and is able to live another day. Advance evolution and let the homeless people starve: eat all the food on your plate people. Stop wasting it.


September 29th, 2013
12:13 pm

Sorry misguided one. Libertarians would not find some central planning solution to be an appropriate response. First of all, we do not have a free market in food production and distribution. The government micromanages and manipulates the market in so many ways its pathetic. It is this government manipulation that is at the heart of the problem. Lets start with the Federal Reserve. Half of every financial transaction is money. The Fed sets the price of money (interest rates) and the quantity (the source of inflation). This means that the Fed is controlling half of every financial transaction that takes place in dollars in one way or another. The result of these cheap money policies are malinvestment (whether in land, machinery, grocery stores, seeds, etc.). Market set interest rates and sound currency would significantly reduce these distortions. Then there are farm policies. Farmers are paid to grow stuff (with price subsidies to keep prices high regardless of overproduction) and farmers continue to be paid to not grow crops (yeah, how stupid is that). Then we have the entire ethanol scam in which millions of tons of corn is being grown, not for food, but to be burned in our tanks and criminals like Tom Harkin and others from corn belt states should be in jail for continuing to support this crime against Americans and the economy. Then there are the myriad of business incentives given by state and local governments for the building of unneeded stores, etc. and countless other ways in which the political class manipulates the market (all sectors, not just food) to create situations of imbalance that likely would not exist without their intervention.

Are we ever going to have a situation in which the perfect amount of food is grown, processed, etc. so there is no waste? Of course not. But businesses that must make decisions based solely on their own financial signals and by REAL, not manipulated signals sent by the market will have a far better track record that central planners in the government. In the Soviet Union people stood in long lines for food that was not there. Here we have an overabundance that gets thrown away. They are both just two sides of a failed government central planning model that will always fail. The free market works, why don’t we put in back in place again?


September 29th, 2013
12:25 pm

I think the FDA needs to change the labeling laws. I want to know if what I purchase contains GMOs or not. Also, I believe the ’sell by’ dates are different from any ‘eat by’ dates. I think it is merely a marketing ploy to get consumers to keep buying junk we really don’t need.


September 29th, 2013
12:26 pm

Hey, my grocery store is right on top of this waste. About 36 hours before the expiration date on food, they “quick sale” it. Mark down! They cover their cost and I get a bargain. They also reduce the price of “ugly produce” that is not appealing but is still good. Makes shopping a lot of fun hunting for bargains and finding a few.

I either cook my bargains very soon, tuck them in the freezer or eat them right away. We are a healthy family. Don’t even mind eating leftovers. The visiting possum in the back yard gets only chicken bones. Those I will share!


September 29th, 2013
3:16 pm

This bogus report may come back to haunt Harvard University.


September 29th, 2013
4:30 pm

So much hatred in the comments here about food.

Christians every one I bet!

Gooooooo Hatred!

Rod Averbuch

September 29th, 2013
4:38 pm

The large amount of fresh food waste is a lose-lose situation for the environment, retailers and the struggling families in today’s tough economy. We should address the waste problem in every link in our food supply chain.
As an example, the excess inventory of perishable food items close to their expiration causes waste. Why not let the consumer perform the perishables rotation by offering him proper incentives based on product’s remaining shelf life?
There is a new GS1 DataBar global standard that enables an automatic incentive offering application for fresh food close to its expiration. This application encourages efficient consumer shopping behavior that maximizes grocery retailer revenue and makes fresh food affordable for all families while effectively reducing the global carbon footprint.
An example of an application (based on GS1 DataBar standard) that could help us win a battle in the food waste war is EndGroceryWaste.
Rod Averbuch,
Chicago, IL


September 29th, 2013
7:17 pm

Oh, and to add to the government role in the problem, growers of some fruits are not allowed to sell their fruit if it is undersized (so as to prop up the prices for the “legal” sized fruit). What’s up with that. Talk about waste, all when Americans eat too little fruit (and vegetables). Regulations like these abound in the agriculture marketplace. The USDA, the FDA, and others all manipulate market conditions and supplies based on agendas that have nearly nothing to do with waste, safety, quality, or anything other than the profits of the big farm owners, etc. The larger the agribusiness market players become, the more insidious the regulations and mechanisms to destroy small competitors. You don’t need any central planning “standard” to incentivise anything. A seller wishes to move product. If he is not restricted (by law generally) from lowering prices, selling small size product, etc. he will do whatever is necessary to sell the product.

People will always act in their own best interest. They cannot be subjected to mathematical calculations to guarantee outcomes. The best that can happen is a free market, without government manipulation, that will allow businesses and consumers to come to agreed upon pricing that will maximize benefits for all involved.


September 29th, 2013
8:57 pm

Wow Mr. “liberty” You sure are an asshat. Your misguided methhead Ayn Rand philosophy is a failure.

godless heathen

September 29th, 2013
9:16 pm

If it smells ok and hasn’t turned colors, eat it. Bunch of sissy-ass wimps.

Dusty2 is right on and an intelligent consumer.


September 29th, 2013
9:45 pm

You guys should write about restaurants in America, America waste a whole lot more than 40 percent of foods. Just about every restaurant, if not everyone of them, if they dont sell their food they throw it away.


September 29th, 2013
10:19 pm

Don’t blame just the restaurants but it is a problem. You would be amazed at the amount of food that is left on plates or better yet is sent back because they don’t like it. There’s 4 to 5 times more of this than the what is wasted in the restaurant kitchen.


September 30th, 2013
9:48 am

Yes, there is a lot of waste in restaurants and supermarkets. Likely more than you would think, unless you’ve worked in either. The policy of tossing based on use by dates is primarily so businesses can cover their butts and not get sued. As for the perfectly good and edible left overs or things not sold daily … you can’t even give that food to the homeless, food banks, and many times employees, because if someone were to get sick, the business could be sued. Thank our litigious society for much of this waste.

Don't Tread

September 30th, 2013
10:16 am

Mangler beat me to it…Businesses don’t want to get sued.

Add to that fact that the average person doesn’t know the difference between a “best before” date, a “sell by” date and a “use or freeze by” date. People don’t have common sense any more…you can thank the public school system and deadbeat/unfit parents for that.


September 30th, 2013
11:29 am

Haste makes waste so I make sure to eat all of my leftovers veerrryy slooooooowly.


September 30th, 2013
11:31 am

Most food products you have some wiggle room around the “by” dates. But be careful with Kroger store brand milk, it’ll frequently go bad by the “sell by” date.


September 30th, 2013
11:45 am

By contrast Aldi’s milk stays fresh weeks after the sell by date.


October 1st, 2013
2:19 pm

and the US government wastes 40% of our tax money


October 1st, 2013
7:28 pm

Well, on a happy food note, (there aren’t many of any kind today), I was the pleased recipient of a bag of absolutely yummy apples. They are wonderful.. I looked at those rosy cheeks and took a big bite. Deeeelicious! Just as I was bragging about north Georgia apples, I was told these just came from Washington state! Oh well! I think those apples thought they were growing in Georgia, the sweetest place in the world to grow!!


October 2nd, 2013
10:59 am

I am an empty nester and seem to waste a lot of food. It is impossible to buy small amounts unless you want to pay more to get a small amount. I feel bad about the waste but so far have not came up with a way around it.


October 4th, 2013
9:58 pm

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