On average, each of us discards more than 240 pounds of food a year that costs us close to $371. Asked why in an online survey from Johns Hopkins researchers, people emphasized safety and freshness.
These were their reasons:
Where are we going? To the food labels that encourage waste.
If a container of milk sits on a food store shelf more than 12 days after it was pasteurized, Montana law says the seller has to discard it. In nearby Washington, rather than Montana’s “sell by” date, shoppers see a “use by” date of 21 days.
Food stores began sharing expiration dates with their customers during the 1970s. The problem though was inconsistency. With no single federal labeling requirement–except for infant formula–the states each decided what to mandate. The result today is sell by, buy by, enjoy no later than, best if used by and a host of other freshness labels that no one has defined for us. Depending on the manufacturer’s intent and the consumer’s interpretation, the label could refer to food safety, freshness, or optimal taste. And even then, when the food reaches our homes, how we handle it will ultimately determine how long it lasts.
The following map from a 2013 study gives an indication of the labels that states require. Gray states have no labeling regulations:
The one common denominator is waste. Those expiration dates are an incentive to discard food sooner than necessary and the reason perfectly good food is not donated to food banks.
Our Bottom Line: The Cost of Food Waste
Primarily from fruits and vegetables, the 1249 calories we discard each day is nutrition from which no one will ever benefit. Looking back at production, instead imagine the land, labor and capital, the fresh water, the fertilizer and the transportation inputs that we (or supermarkets) are throwing away when we discard some lettuce. Looking forward, we have the impact of the garbage on the environment if it winds up in a landfill or of the dollars it might require to be recycled or composted. Perceived as dollars, from “harvest to consumer,” the value of the food we wasted in 2010 was approximately $161.6 billion.
However, for the most interesting discussion of the cost of food waste, do take a look at what John Oliver said (a warning that he uses some racy language):