The Problem with Food Waste [and Some Solutions]
The food supply system in the United States is massive, but not all the food produced is consumed. A shocking amount of it goes to waste, eventually left to rot in landfills, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated in 2010 that up to 40 percent of the country’s total food supply is wasted—133 billion pounds worth. Since then, the population has grown, so the total volume of wasted food has likely also increased.
While individuals can and should take steps to reduce their personal food waste, it’s also up to food suppliers, retailers, and distributors (like Buffalo Market) to do their part.
At Buffalo Market, our algorithms plot optimized truck routes, meaning our vehicles spend less time on the road and emit fewer greenhouse gases. We also deploy machine learning to manage inventory cycling in retail stores, reducing unnecessary food waste.
While the food waste problem in the US is both severe and wide-ranging, the reasons are not as simple as you might think. There are many contributing factors, including consumer confusion.
What Causes Food Waste?
Given the growing issue of global food insecurity—including at least 35 million Americans going without enough food—food waste is a humanitarian disaster.
Why does the problem of food waste seem so hard to overcome? It’s likely due to the fact that there isn’t a single cause at the root of the problem, but many.
1. Confusion around food safety and expiration dates
Anybody who has ever shopped for groceries has already come across terms like “best-by date,” “sell-by date,” and “use-by date.” Although they may sound alike, they don’t mean the same thing. In fact, they don’t even indicate the date of safety, contrary to what most people think.
To understand this point, it pays to discuss more food product dating. Unless the product is infant formula, no federal agency is mandating food manufacturers and processing companies to add any date to their products.
However, consumers have come to expect food to have some form of dating on the label, so most food producers opt to do so. The most commonly-used open dating terms include these four:
- The sell-by date isn’t intended for consumers. Instead, it is for retailers to help them determine how long they should keep the product on display or inventory.
- Best-by or best-before date, which is probably the most common product date, indicates the period when the product is at its best quality.
- The use-by date refers to the last date in which the product could be at its peak quality.
- Freeze-by date defines how long the product should remain frozen to maintain its quality
In other words, not one of these dates tells when the food will spoil or no longer be consumable. As long as the food is stored properly, they’re still safe for consumption. They may notice the quality deteriorates over time, which is expected, but it doesn’t mean they are no longer safe to eat.
Because these terms aren’t necessarily clear to many Americans, these consumers often treat any date label as an expiration date or date by which the product is no longer safe to eat or drink. Confusion around these terms often leads to perfectly edible food being put in the trash before its time—about 30% of food waste in the United States is due to households inadvertently disposing of food this way.
2. Food Loss in the Supply Chain
Households are far from the only culprits. In fact, at least 40 percent of the country’s food waste occurs along the supply chain. Unfortunately, food loss can happen in almost every step of the supply chain process.
Food Loss in Agriculture
The data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shared that about 30 percent of the global food loss is right at the production and harvest stage, which means before farmers can ever load their produce on trucks for distribution or further processing.
Food waste at this level happens for the following reasons:
- The farm harvested prematurely or too late. In either case, the food is less likely fit for processing or consumption.
- Distributors or wholesalers don’t buy the harvest. It may happen if the farm-gate prices are too high.
- Weather is also another possible explanation. Sudden torrential rain can damage crops even before they are fit for harvest.
- Farms may be under quality-based contracts, and buyers may be more specific about the produce they want to buy. This suggests that low-quality harvests can already count as spoilage or waste.
- Farms don’t have enough or ideal storage infrastructure, such as refrigeration.
Food Loss in Processing and Packaging
Just because the produce or ingredient ends up in a manufacturing or processing facility doesn’t mean it gets used completely. Some may never even be processed. Likely due to quality, size, and other conditions.
Even after processing, food suppliers may still reject items because they don’t pass quality standards, which can be as simple as not meeting the ideal weight, color, or taste.
This is a common occurrence among manufacturers. In fact, they allot a percentage of tolerable food wastage, which is around 5 percent. Although the figure may sound small, it may still total to several tons at the end of the year, considering these plants produce such high volumes.
Moreover, as much as 25 percent of food waste that occurs at home is due to the size of the packaging or its design. The package may not be enough to completely protect the product, so it spoils fast. Condiments may stick to the bottom or the sides.
Food Loss in Distribution and Retail
The US also produces waste while the food product is still in transit. This typically occurs when the delivery truck or van doesn’t come with sufficient storage or refrigeration. The lack of proper temperature control will lead to spoilage even before the goods reach the retailers.
Another potential explanation is the logistics issue. Factors such as weather, government policies, and other issues like the COVID-19 pandemic can hamper the flow of distribution and delivery. It increases the risk of spoilage while in transit for traditional distribution.
Lastly, there’s food recall. Although the US doesn’t have the most recalls, it still had nearly 340 in 2019 alone. These problematic types of food will then end up in incinerators or landfills.
Blockchain Technology for Temperature Monitoring
Buffalo Market leverages onboard IoT sensors to monitor temperature and humidity conditions during transit, ensuring temperature safety and preventing food waste. Data from the sensors is stored on the Helium Network blockchain and shared in real time with suppliers and retailers.
3. Poor Forecasting of Food Demand
In order to sufficiently meet customer needs without going overboard, businesses rely on accurately predicting the market demand for their products. Not having enough products for consumers means profit losses. On the other hand, stocking a surplus carries more overhead costs and carries the risk of—you guessed it—food spoilage.
The biggest issue with forecasting is that it’s challenging to do accurately. Demand is rarely static and tends to fluctuate based on volatile influences like the economy. Even things like pop culture and the weather might have a say in how in-demand certain products are.
Predictive Ordering to the Rescue
Much of the food industry is run based on analog tools, outdated software, and a lack of access to data. Unlike other distribution solutions, Buffalo Market automates the entire ordering process. Our proprietary software, Stampede, solves retailers’ and brand owners’ costliest problem: accurately placing orders for thousands of SKUs and replenishing fast-moving items.
Buyers and brands love Stampede because it can automatically place the perfect order for every SKU, reducing out-of-stocks and waste. Out-of-stocks cost retailers billions and erode customer loyalty, sending them into competitors’ arms.
Stampede’s machine learning interprets our live data and powers predictive ordering for retailers. Our tech helps major grocers like Walmart, Costco, Whole Foods, and Safeway drive down food waste and brands drive up margins.
Stampede acts as an entire ecosystem and data hub for brands to monitor sales, retailers to oversee inventory, and Buffalo delivery drivers to manage distribution—ordering, scheduling of pick-ups, and replenishment of stores.
4. COVID Wrecks Havoc on a Troubled Industry
The COVID-19 pandemic devastated businesses and led to an enormous amount of food waste, particularly in the United States. A 2020 report from the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois revealed:
- Countrywide school and café closures dramatically reduced the demand for milk. Faced with an excess of highly perishable dairy, farmers had no choice but to dump untold barrels of their product.
- Covid outbreaks among workers forced poultry processing plants to cease operations. The meat processing slowdown led some farmers to euthanize their chickens rather than pay to raise surplus stock.
- Goods typically grown in mass quantities to sell to restaurants also became overstock. Whatever couldn’t be sold to households turned into waste.
5. Consumer Behavior
Consumers have a shared responsibility to help reduce waste. In one industry study, the data showed that a typical American family discards over 30% of the food they purchase. The report cites four reasons this might be the case:
- Large households
- Higher-income households
- Aspirational health food shopping
- Shopping without a grocery list
Shopping more intentionally and not buying more than needed for one’s household might help reduce the food waste generated from homes.
What Happens to Food Waste?
Now that we’ve got a grasp on where food waste comes from let’s look at what happens to it after its creation.
1. Environmental Impact
Food waste has a direct environmental impact not only here in the United States but around the world. Every pound of food that isn’t consumed is also a waste of the resources used to make it.
Agriculture, for example, uses up to 70 percent of freshwater around the globe. While the planet is surrounded by water, only a small percentage of that is drinkable or usable. Additionally, agriculture in the United States uses upwards of 20 million pounds of fertilizer each year.
Food waste is also strongly associated with worsening climate change. First, food that may end up in landfills can produce methane when they begin to rot. In the near term, it can speed up global warming since its ability to warm the planet is over 80 times worse than that of carbon dioxide.
Unsurprisingly, the effects of a warming climate on agriculture could reduce harvesting windows and contribute even more to food waste in an ill-fated feedback loop.
Climate change can also potentially change the quality of food since it may alter the conditions of the soil, weather, and the responses of plants to these changes in their surroundings. Moreover, it can disrupt the availability of much-needed resources like water or sunshine.
Lastly, food waste can increase both land and water pollution especially in this age where many types of produce are wrapped in individual plastic or placed in Styrofoam containers. These, like food, can end up in landfills, where plastics can take about a thousand years to decompose.
2. Economic Impact
A 2020 study found that the average American spends around $1,300 on wasted food. That amount is more than most spent on gasoline, clothing, heating and electricity bills, property tax, or household repairs and maintenance every year.
The amount represents about $3.50 spent on unconsumed food each day or a quarter of all of the food an average consumer purchases. The most wasted category of food was meat and seafood followed by produce, grains, treats, and dairy products.
According to the EPA, all of the food wasted in America costs an estimated $218 billion, or 1.3% of the country’s GDP.
Food waste is a humanitarian crisis, especially in the face of growing food insecurity in the United States.
According to the USDA, in 2019, at least 10.5 percent of households in the country didn’t have access or capability to meet their daily food needs sometime during the year. About 5 million homes had significantly low food security.
Food insecurity is worse among certain demographics. In the same year, nearly 40 percent of food-insecure homes had incomes below the poverty line. The percentage was also higher among homes with single parents as well as Black and Hispanic families.
Moreover, although many parents protect their children from hunger, at least 13 percent still couldn’t escape experiencing the problem. In almost 7 percent of households, both parents and children were food insecure.
The COVID-19 pandemic worsened this social issue as families lost their jobs and further strained already low-income households. According to the data from Feeding America, about one in eight Americans could become food insecure in 2021.
With the right funding and organizing, it’s possible for much of the food wasted in the US could be diverted to programs that distribute food to people who need it.
Second, as mentioned, food waste can aggravate climate change and global warming. Incidentally, these global issues also contribute to food insecurity.
In a 2020 study by Nature Food, UK researchers looked into the global yields of over 15 most-farmed crops. These include rye, cotton, cassava, oats, rice, sugar beet, barley, wheat, and soybeans. These types of produce represented around 70 percent of the global crops area.
They learned that climate change alone could already strain the farmers’ ability to produce the same yield as before. In other words, they couldn’t meet the food demands of their market even if they had the capability to pay.
Furthermore, the negative impact was the greatest on places that could already be facing severe food insecurity, such as Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Indonesia. It should be noted that these are also places with some of the largest populations.
Significant Initiatives to Reduce Food Waste
Food waste affects not only the home — it impacts everyone — and with the high environmental, economic, and social costs associated with it, it begs the question: what is the United States doing to deal with it? There’s no single solution but a series of sensible approaches.
1. Political Moves
Governmental policy can be highly effective and often serves as the foundation for change on a broad scale.
In 2015, the United States launched its Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal to align with its UN Sustainable Development Goals objectives. The primary purpose is to decrease food loss and waste by at least 50 percent within the next 15 years (or until 2030).
To accomplish its goal, the government intends to work closely with various other groups that include but are not limited to farmers and ranchers, community gardeners, transporters, and retail markets that cover vendors, restaurants, and grocers.
Policymakers and stakeholders will devise ways of working together to reduce waste across the board. Creative ideas, such as one industry using the food waste of another as a resource, could serve multiple interests.
One result of this initiative was the creation of a Food Recovery Hierarchy, which aims to determine priority actions from the most preferred to the least method of disposal. The highest priority in the hierarchy is to reduce waste at the production level.
If organizations cannot avoid producing a surplus, the next step is to feed hungry people by donating extra food to shelters, soup kitchens, and food banks. The least desirable option to reduce food waste is to place it in landfills or incinerators.
The hierarchy acts as one of the guidelines for the Food Recovery Challenge, an optional incentive program for organizations to receive recognition from the EPA. Participating businesses quality for technological assistance and tax credits through the program.
2. Apps and Organizations
Whether it be corporate responsibility or legislative incentives, many organizations and businesses are launching their own waste reduction programs.
Some organizations leverage technology to cut down on waste:
- Food For All connects its subscribers to nearby restaurants that may have excess food. At the end of the business day, those restaurants offer surplus meals at steep discounts—up to 80%.
- Flashfood takes products approaching their sell-by date (but still perfectly safe to eat) and offers them at discounts as high as 50%.count.
- Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market are services that collect visually unappealing but (otherwise indistinguishable) produce that would generally go to waste and sells them at a discount.
Brick-and-mortar businesses are also taking steps to remedy the situation.
Starbucks has joined FoodShare and partnered with organizations like Feeding America and Food Donation Connection, who work to collect Starbucks’ unsold food from its 7,000 locations nationwide.
Chains like Safeway, Whole Foods, Costco, Walmart, and Raleys, all leverage Buffalo Market’s Stampede distribution software to make ordering fast-moving items more predictive, reducing out-of-stocks and shrinking waste.
3. Sustainability-focused Brands
Over the years, as consumers become more aware of the dire food loss and waste in the United States, their preferences and behavior have also begun to change. In 2019, an Accenture study showed that 50 percent of the respondents would be willing to pay more for sustainable products.
Moreover, over 70 percent bought more environmentally-friendly goods than five years ago. At least 80 percent expected to continue shopping more sustainably over the next five years.
The report also suggests that consumers are making businesses more accountable and participative. Almost 85 percent believed that it is important or extremely important for companies to make sustainable products or those that can be either recycled or reused (or both).
This shift led to the appearance and growth of more sustainability-driven brands across all sectors. Companies are increasingly looking for ways to brand their products as sustainable, often using labels like “organic,” “local,” “sustainably sourced,” or “powered by renewable energy.”
It can be difficult to tell the difference between sincere efforts to become more sustainable and so-called “greenwashing”—the practice of implying sustainability without actually taking steps to make it so.
Buffalo Market works only with brands who share our sincere commitment to products that are better for you and better for the planet. Brands like Inked Bread Co., Alvarado St. Bakery, and Mi Rancho Tortillas (among others) all use the highest quality ingredients and the most sustainable business practices possible to bring their products to market. We’re extremely proud to represent them.
Food waste isn’t just a household problem. It’s a pressing global issue rooted in many causes, including false perception and poor resource management.
Its impact isn’t limited to the several square feet of a home. Rather, it touches on climate change, land and water pollution, and even food insecurity that affects the United States and the rest of the world.
But as they say, the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it — and the country is taking notice and action. While more work needs to be done, the United States can be on track in achieving its 2030 food waste and loss reduction goal. #endfoodwaste