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USDA: Americans waste nearly one-third of their food; worth $161 billion

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Food and Drink,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets,Agriculture,EPA,Energy and Environment

Nearly a third of the 430 billion pounds of food produced for Americans to eat is wasted, a potential catastrophe for landfills and a wake-up call to officials scrambling to feed the hungry, according to a stunning new report from the Department of Agriculture.

The just-issued report revealed that in 2010, 31 percent, or 133 billion pounds, of food produced for Americans to eat was wasted, either molded or improperly cooked, suffered “natural shrinkage” due to moisture loss, or because people became disinterested in what they purchased.

“In 2010, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food at the retail and consumer levels in the United States went uneaten, and this amount is valued at $161.6 billion using retail prices. This amount of food loss translates into 141 trillion calories in 2010. These estimates suggest that annual food loss in the United States is substantial,” said Ag.

The report comes as the administration is growing concerned about landfills running out of space and struggling to help the one-sixth of Americans who go hungry every day. The report noted that 14 percent of garbage dumped into landfills is food waste, and that 49 million people, mostly poor, need more food.

While waste isn’t new to America, the volume revealed in the report is shocking, and the reasons sometimes just as surprising.

The report provides estimates of waste for different foods, including the top food groups wasted. No. 1 in 2010, the sample year, was the group including meat, poultry and fish. The report said 30 percent, or $48 billion, was wasted.

The reasons for trashing food included dented cans, spills, mold, poor coloring and even religion. Below is USDA’s list of reasons consumers trashed their food:

• Spillages, abrasion, bruising, excessive trimming, excessive or insufficient heat, inadequate storage, technical malfunction.

• Sprouting of grains and tubers, biological aging in fruit.

• Consumers becoming confused over “use-by” and “best before” dates so that food is discarded while still safe to eat.

• Lack of knowledge about preparation and appropriate portion sizes. For example, lack of consumer knowledge of when a papaya is ripe, how to prepare it, and how to use it as an ingredient are reasons for high papaya loss.

• Industry or government standards may cause some products to be rejected for human consumption (e.g., plate waste can’t be reused at restaurants).

• Psychological tastes, attitudes, and preferences leading to plate waste/scrapings (e.g., human aversion, such as “I don’t eat that,” or refusal to eat a food for religious reasons).

• Consumer demand for high cosmetic standards.

• Seasonal factors: more food is wasted in summer.

• Uneaten or leftover holiday foods.

The report, titled “The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States,” doesn't provide a solution to the problem, but hopes to provoke thinking on the issue.

“There is a practical limit to how much food loss the United States can prevent or reduce given technical and spatial factors; consumers’ tastes, preferences, and food habits; and economic factors. Therefore, the amount of food loss that could be prevented or reduced will be less than the ERS food loss estimates. Nevertheless, these updated estimates are a unique contribution to the literature and are useful in providing perspective to the issue of food loss in the United States,” it said.

Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at pbedard@washingtonexaminer.com.