FACT CHECK: Does 40 Percent Of Food In The US Never Get Eaten?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota said that around 40 percent of the nation’s food does not get eaten.

“About 40% of food in the U.S. never gets eaten,” she said in a tweet Aug. 19.

Verdict: True

The 40 percent figure is on the higher end of food loss estimates, as it considers food lost in manufacturing and distribution. Studies that focus on a narrower part of the food supply chain – stores, restaurants and households – estimate food waste at roughly 30 percent.

Fact Check:

Smith cited the figure when she shared an article about companies in Minnesota that recycle food waste into new products. The piece attributed the 40 percent figure to the Ad Council.

The Ad Council and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) run a public service announcement campaign to reduce food waste and encourage families to change shopping habits and other behaviors.

The 40 percent number originated in a 2009 study from researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on the increase of food waste and its environmental impact. “Food waste has progressively increased from about 30% of the available food supply in 1974 to almost 40% in recent years,” it said in an analysis of 2003 data. The study examined food loss during manufacturing and distribution, in addition to food waste in stores, restaurants and households.

An NRDC report cited that study but noted that in the time since, a preliminary update calculated an estimate of 37 percent for 2010.

Other studies provide lower estimates for food waste when examining a narrower part of the food supply chain – only the retail and consumer level.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service found in a 2014 study that 31 percent of the food bought by retailers and consumers was wasted in 2010 – about 133 billion pounds of food worth $161.6 billion. It used a different methodology than the NIH study.

The 31 percent figure is a lower-end estimate, the USDA says, because its study did not include losses on the farm and during distribution. The agency considers the NIH estimate to be the upper limit.

On the retail level, stores throw food away for reasons such as damaged packaging, inability to sell seasonal foods or spoilage. The USDA found that U.S. consumers waste 21 percent of the total food supply.

A 2012 study from researchers at the University of California, Davis provided another lower estimate. It said that 29 percent of food at the retail and consumer level in 2008 was wasted, particularly meat, vegetables and dairy products. Wasted food accounts for about 10 percent of what the average person spends on food, it found.

NRDC argues that if the USDA or NIH methodology considered the entire food supply chain, the food waste estimates would rise to 39 and 43 percent, respectively.

Additional food is lost on farms or at the production level. Food on farms can be damaged by insects or lost to poor weather, and government regulations and industry standards mean that some food is rejected. Many retailers will only purchase cosmetically appealing produce, for instance.

International data also supports the notion that 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste.

“Roughly 30-40% of food in both the developed and developing worlds is lost to waste,” a 2010 report in Science Mag said. It found that food in developed countries was primarily lost at the consumer and retail level, while in developing countries, most of the loss was due to poor food-chain infrastructure and a lack of investment in storage technologies.

A World Resources Institute analysis of U.N. data found that about 42 percent of the food in North America and Oceania overall – in production, processing or consumption – was lost or wasted in 2009. Most of that loss occurred at the consumer level. Globally, about 32 percent of food was lost or wasted.

“Overall, on a per-capita basis, much more food is wasted in the industrialized world than in developing countries,” a 2011 U.N. report said.

The USDA implemented a food loss and waste reduction goal in 2015, calling for a 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030. The agency continues to promote food waste reduction under the Trump administration.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter

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