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foodwaste
Musings

Waste, Fraud and Abuse

by Nick

Over the last few months I’ve been reading a book called “American Wasteland” by Jonathan Bloom, subtitled “How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food.” It’s taken me a while to get through it because I find myself reading a few pages, getting pissed off, raging through my kitchen trying to find a way to save food, failing, and finally putting the book on a shelf for a week.

So it took me a while to read 300 pages at that rate.

In short, it’s a frustrating book to read, but one that I think many people could benefit from reading. It’s frustrating to think that while there are people in the world (and in this country) starving every single day, half of the food that’s produced and grown in this country is literally trashed.

That’s a frightening figure.

Politicians always talk about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse from budgets and after thinking about it, I realized the same three items can be applied to this problem. So let’s break it down and look at the waste, fraud and abuse that’s going on in our food production system these days.

Waste

Food waste is impossible to eliminate. That’s one thing that Mr. Bloom makes very clear. You’re going to have spoilage. You’re going to have unused pieces of ingredients. There will be accidents. Inevitably, food will be thrown out that at one point, could have been eaten.

The problem, of course, is the levels of waste. As the author uncovers in his research, some of the largest waste comes before the groceries even get to the store shelves. At the very beginning of his book, he visits a lettuce farm where he guessed that “one out of every five” heads of perfectly edible lettuce is left to rot. The pickers have incentives to pick only the absolute best heads so if there’s even a doubt about it, they leave it behind.

For sake of calculations, he uses a much more conservative estimate that 90% of the lettuce is harvested.

“Since growers in the Salinas Valley produced 153,495 acres of lettuce in 2007, that’s the equivalent of not harvesting 15,350 acres, or leaving more than 13 million pounds of lettuce in the field. And that’s just lettuce.”

It gets worse. Once produce makes it out of the field it goes through a huge array of production and processing lines from cooling units to trucks to warehouses to, ultimately, grocery stores. At every single stage, produce is inspected and in many cases if it doesn’t meet quality standards, the entire shipment will be thrown out.

Sometimes if the produce facility or driver is particularly mindful, they will try to arrange for this perfectly edible (but not perfect) produce to be donated, but if it can’t be arranged quickly, it’s generally just trashed. Sometimes by the truckload.

So when you see produce on the shelves at the stores or in a restaurant, it seems almost miraculous that it ever got there after reading the labyrinth that food goes through. It’s hard to know what percentage of food gets wasted before it even gets to our homes, but it seems like this might be the most obvious example of waste in our current system.

Fraud

When you think of the word fraud you probably think of lying. But I don’t think it needs to be that severe. Fraud can also be through deception and it turns out that there’s some pretty serious deception/confusion happening when it comes to food.

The best example of this involves food labeling. I’m sure you’ve seen the dates that are frequently stamped on dairy, meat, and some produce in stores. The problem is that there’s a huge variety of date displays on food and it’s almost impossible to wade through them. As Mr. Bloom sums up:

“In American retailing, our complex status quo includes terms such as ‘sell by,’ ‘sell or freeze by,’ ‘display until,’ ‘use by,’ ‘use or freeze by,’ ‘enjoy by,’ ‘best by,’ and ‘best before.’ I study food waste and it even confuses me from time to time.

The problem, of course, is that when people see a date on a package they immediately assume that the product is no longer good after that date. But those above terms mean a wide range of things. The result is that these dates end up baffling not only consumers, but store workers.

Both employees and shoppers aren’t always sure what all the dates mean so, as they say, when it doubt throw it out.

While this deception might not be purposeful, it’s happening. More importantly, it seems like by standardizing our labeling system and providing consumers with some basic information, this could be easily fixed.

Abuse

After I realized all the work and waste that happened before food even got to me, abuse was the best word I could think of to describe when I throw something out now that used to be edible.

Abuse, in the food world, is the stuff that consumers throw away without a thought. This could be the half plate of enchiladas that you didn’t finish at the Mexican restaurant or the full head of butter lettuce that I let go bad in my fridge.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve had my abusive moments. Why do I have half a dozen tiny cubes of cheese, two of which are completely molded? Why do I have three different bags of baby carrots? Herbs. Don’t even get me started on herbs.

It’s pretty hard to measure how much food is thrown out by individuals once it gets into the home, but my guess is that it could be less.

Some Dreaming…

Some of my favorite parts of this book were the solutions that Mr. Bloom offers. Some of them are probably never going to happen, but some of them are incredibly simple to implement on the personal level. At the end of the day, even if we can’t get farms to harvest more produce or change the way food is labeled, some changes might be more simple.

Here’s three ideas he gives that I thought were particularly simple and effective.

Encourage supermarkets to discount soon-to-expire goods. I’ve actually seen this, but it’s really rare. Supermarkets just don’t like to have non-perfect produce on the shelves, but it’s been shown that people will pay less for less-than-perfect produce if it’s available. They will buy it though which means it won’t go to waste. I have no idea why this isn’t in every store.

Get Doggy Bags. A lot of waste happens in the restaurant world. This is largely because restaurants serve ridiculous portions these days. For some reason there’s a stigma against the doggy bag, but try to make an effort to take your leftovers and actually eat them.

Track your food. Get a white board. Hang it on your fridge. Write down everything that goes in and comes out. This is the best way to cut down on your personal waste. Betsy and I have been doing this for a few months now and while we still make mistakes, I think our food waste is way down.

I have a feeling that over the next decade or two, food waste is going to become a pretty big issue.

What do you think? Do you have any tips on how to reduce food waste? Leave a comment on how to stop waste, fraud, and abuse!

Photo by hipsxxhearts.

 

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31 comments on “Waste, Fraud and Abuse

  1. Thanks for sharing the book with us! I know when I bought the green veggie bags my produce waste plummeted. I can store veggies much longer now and I am actually able to eat them all before they go bad. I can store lettuce for at least 2 weeks and cucumbers and squash for almost 2 weeks. If you haven't tried them- its worth the 10 bucks. http://www.amazon.com/Debbie-Meyer-20317-Green-Ba

  2. Nick, thanks for this. I am going to get this book. This makes me sooo angry! I have been meaning to make a list of all the food I have in my apartment in order to cut down on waste (and also save some $$) and this post will make sure I do that tonight! Thanks again. And thanks, Jul, for the link above. Great idea.

  3. As I tossed artisan bread, gorgeous fruit tarts, and lots of other beautiful foods into the dumpster, I couldn't understand why the supermarket chain I was working for couldn't give the employees at least a discount opportunity to buy them or donate them to foodbanks. A depressing and inhumane policy to protect profits. I don't get it.

    1. Oh yea… I didn't mention it but there's a chapter in the book where he works in a supermarket for a while. He had a similar experience.

  4. What a great post. I hadn't heard of this book, but I will plan on picking it up. Food waste is one of the things that angers me most. I just don't get it. I feel like I'm so fortunate in life and fortunate that I'm not ever wanting for food, and I'm not about to disrespect that by throwing stuff away right and left. I will take the most ridiculous stuff to work for lunch just to avoid ever wasting anything.

    Aside from that, what has helped me the most is to plan my meals while keeping in mind the random condiments, herbs, bottles, etc. that I have in my fridge. Like if I buy a tub of sour cream to have tacos, I'll also plan chicken paprikash and goulash and whatever else that I can plan to use that tub up. That and I get my use out of my freezer! I throw everything that I can up there if I know that it will otherwise go bad. It may not be just as good out of the freezer, but at least it's not in the trash.
    My recent post Shrimp with Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Andouille Cream

  5. EAT LOCAL. There are numerous other benefits in addition to less waste. The spoilage must increase when food is shipped around the country, around the continent and across the globe. Let the food primarily feed the people of the region where it is grown.

  6. Hi, thank you for mentioning this book. I will order this soon. I'm an American living in Belgium, about 40 minutes outside of Brussels.

    In my commune we had the option to refuse our yearly supply of compost bags to receive a free compost container to put in the backyard.

    First of all, I'm not a horribly 'green' person. Secondly, I thought compost would have a horrible smell to it.

    I was pleasantly surprised to discover that compost does not smell all that bad. We pretty much only put fruit and veggie peels, tea bags, coffee filters, and paper towels in our compost bags. And it smells like exactly what is in the bag, no rotting smell of any sort.

    I have yet to set up the compost container, but I was also surprised that we were given a heavy duty large plastic compost container, not the cheap wooden ones I've seen in some of the hardware stores.

    It's quite easy to just toss in any fruit and veggie peels and a quick glance at Google will tell you what else can be put into a compost bin (like stale bread). I understand that diseased fruits or veggies cannot go into a compost bin. I also know that an expensive compost bin is hardly necessary. I wonder why farmers, grocers, and just the public in general, doesn't make more use out of a compost bin. I would think that if the compost was not needed by a local grocer, they could donate it, along with seeds, to food banks or soup kitchens. It could help them or the people they serve start a few vegetables or fruits. It certainly doesn't solve the hunger issue, but I would like to think it would keep the landfills a little less full and help keep tummies a little more full…and maybe even keep more pesticides out of our foods.

      1. Space can be had anywhere! Just a quick Google and there are instructions for homemade bins or bins of various sizes can be found. Might be a good addition for your garden plan ;-)

        P.S. Just love your food blog!

  7. I also am going to pick up this book. LIke you, Nick, I have recently bought a white board to keep track of the food I have. I even went so far as to inventory my entire food stocks (fridge, freezer and pantry). I created a spread sheet with expiration dates so that I can sort by expiration date and make an effort to eat stuff before it goes bad. I just generally give any fruits and vegetables a one week from purchase date for expiration unless there is reason to think it won't last that long. Finally, the one thing I have done that has REALLY made a difference in reducing my food waste is to do meal planning. I plan a week in advance. I create my shopping list based on my meal plan. I eat what I planned every day. The problem I have is that generally the recipes make larger batches than I thought and I have more food than I had planned on, but I usually freeze what I can't eat in the time allotted. I'll get better at this as time goes on and I can tweak my recipes for correct portion sizes, but it is really making a big difference in what I throw out. My compost pile is getting lonely.
    My recent post Update- Meal Planning

  8. I try hard not to waste food at home. My pet peeve when it comes to wasting food is gigantic restaurant portions. Why do they have to be so huge? I think it has something to do with high overhead on each diner and the relatively low cost of raw ingredients. I would gladly pay the same price for half the portion size made with higher-end local and/or organic ingredients. I hate doggie bags, and I find it hard not to eat past the point of enjoyment when the food is sitting there and I can hear my grandmother over my shoulder clucking about waste. It's gotten so I'd rather skip going to restaurants entirely than deal with the gargantuan portions.

  9. A little common sense can go a long way to reduce waste. The "if in doubt, throw it out" slogan can apply, but learn WHEN and WHAT to doubt. Look at your fresh food. Does the old food look and smell like the new food? Is your fruit squishy in parts it shouldn' t be squishy? Does it smell bad? Is there mold on the surface? Did the color change? Even if you can answer yes to these questions, you still might be able to save it. Non-porous solid foods can have the bad parts cut out. Take a block of cheddar for example. If it has a little white or green mold on the outside, cut a thin layer off to expose the fresh cheese below. Your winter squash has a squishy spot? Cut it out and cook the rest immediately. If your yogurt is moldy or your milk smells bad sour, there is not much to do but buy less or eat more next time. I would go with buying less and eating less.

  10. Nick, we have a food saver. I'm like you and I hate to waste food. Makes me crazy. I freeze my homemade broths in muffin tins and then vacuum seal. I look for the specials of the week for meat and vacuum seal. One day the good free-range chicken was on sale (due to expiration dates). I walked out with 4 chickens for under $15. I tend to cook really big, and have learned to make just two portions during the week so food is not thrown out. We are not shy with doggie bags and my husband (like me) loves left overs. We'll eat the same thing for three days. Italian parsley is a go to herb. We put it in a glass of water and keep it in fridge unwrapped. Stays fresh all week and is in our face. All Italian bread left over becomes our bread crumbs, which I keep frozen and vacuum sealed. I keep walnuts frozen same way.

    1. I love the frozen broth in muffin pans! Will be doing that tonight- I had some broth left over from the chicken i poached and was looking for a container big enough to hole it all! But I will be doing the muffin pan trick!

  11. WOW! Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I try and try to use all the food we grow and bring into the house as well…but even the best laid plans… I plan to get the book and have my children,and husband read it as well! Thank you thank you!

  12. What an outstanding post! This book is now at the top of my Library check list.
    Why do Americans think everything they eat must look like it just was created on the Foodie TV channels? Or worse, that their groceries should look like a picture in a magazine? How does the rest of the world survive?

    I believe sincerely that one of the best ways to get a reality check of how "real food" looks is to grow it yourself, even if only a patio tomato or two pepper plants on a window sill. Most people have a very unrealistic view of nutrition vs. beauty. They commonly believe that the highly glossed and waxed cucumbers offer more nutritive value than that half wilted bunch of chard (which can be nearly instantly revived by plunging into a large bowl of cold water when you get it home).
    And my scabby, tiny unknown heirloom apples ARE more delicious than so-called "Delicious". varieties.

    Thanks for the thoughtful reading suggestion.

  13. Nice blog nick.

    We make a menu for the next 2 weeks – month with about 3-4 meals a week. That way we know exactly what to buy and enough just enough for 1-2 left overs. A deep freezer, for us, also saves a ton of food from going to waste.

    See you at the gym meat head :)

  14. Food waste really makes me sad because there are people in my own town that go without eating. It's a shame how much we have taken food for granted and we throw out food that doesn't look perfect. What a shame that the tossed produce isn't even composted…am I completely off my rocker?? If I waste veggies (which happens) it goes into my compost. That way I don't have to go and buy something when I can use what I would have thrown out.

    I toss less-than-pretty fruits and veggies into a smoothie or I incorporate it into my dogs food. :) My food waste has been drastically cut back.

    It sounds like that book was really eye opening and frustrating all at the same time. I heard that you can freeze herbs so they won't go bad and it's better than just buying the dried herbs from bottles…

    Thank you for sharing this, sorry for being so wordy and I really hope you are having a good start to the week!

  15. I got this book back when you first posted about it, and same as you, it's taking me awhile to get through it. It's both maddening and enlightening. An important read for all of us. Before I got the book I had just begun composting and I'm really, really glad I have. Now that our town has started recycling more, our family of six (eight not too long ago before my two oldest moved out) has gone from emptying the garbage every day to emptying it once a week. A nice change.

    Thanks for the post, Nick! I'll have to follow your lead and finally finish the book.

  16. I have almost zero food waste, with the obvious exception of peels and cores. Those get dumped into the compost pile of the farm next to my building. A friend of mine who lives in the next building throws away more produce in a week than I buy. This difference is all down to one reason – PLANNING. Every Sunday my refrigerator is empty. I go to the store with a plan and only buy exactly what I need for the week and if I'm in doubt, I buy less (you can always go back, right?) My friend, on the other hand, is an impulse supermarket shopper. She buys anything and everything that strikes her fancy, regularly buying more than one person will eat in a week. Furthermore, because she shops with no clear plan she ends up missing the one or two things she needs to complete a meal she wants, thus requiring her to go back to the store for those items which triggers a whole new bout of impulse produce buying.

    When I first started planning my grocery purchases, I listed what I wanted to eat for the week and would only purchase the items necessary to make those things, disregarding beautiful looking produce not specifically on the list. Now I just take a scrap piece of paper and mark off the days as I buy items to cook for those days. I also have a very portable recipe book that I frequently take with me so I can plan properly, regularly doubling recipes that freeze well and getting ideas on how to use the rest of something (I know I can't eat all of that spinach in salads before it gets icky…oh, I can make this soup and freeze it for up to a month!)

    Seriously, a small amount of forethought can make a world of difference.

  17. Hi NIck,
    These are some very good points you've made. I know many people go to the store and buy things they think they might use and then they end up throwing half of it away. What a disaster! In order not to waste food I always meal plan at least 4 days out. This way I always know exactly what I need to buy when I go to the grocery store and there is no waste. We eat any leftovers from dinner for lunch. And if I do have any miscellaneous vegetables it will go into my next soup.
    My recent post 10 Good Reasons to Eliminate Sugar

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