U.S. Food Waste Policy And How It Compares To The Rest Of The World

Cook and culture

Written by cookandculture | Edited by Carol Coutinho & Aditi Khandelwal

If you’re digging into this article, my guess is that you already know a thing or two about food waste. It’s a local, state, national and even global issue that has the environmental community and the food community’s attention alike. You might be wondering what the U.S. government is doing to address this problem, however, the answer might not be what you think. There are also other countries that have implemented different standards relative to this issue that could be learned from, both good and bad. So in order to learn how to best tackle the challenge that is food waste, let’s take a look into what’s being done from a policy perspective.

The world’s three greatest greenhouse gas emitters are China, the United States and the European Union (EU). Food waste, if it were a country, would supplant the EU as the third largest emitter with ease. The total assets needed to produce the food that is wasted or lost, globally, generates a greenhouse gas equivalent of 3.3 billion tons of CO2. It’s important to understand that this article is generally focused on food waste rather than food loss. 

Food waste “refers to the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers”. While food loss “is the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers and consumers”. This is a Food and Agriculture of United Nations chart to help visualize where each of them occur relative to each other.

It might seem intuitive, but it is important to mention that food waste is a bigger challenge in developed countries relative to food loss which is still a major problem in developing ones. Advancements in science, technology, infrastructure, education and funding have allowed many countries to minimize their on farm losses while they still struggle to reduce downstream waste. In the U.S., up to 40% of all food is wasted and this is due to both the structure of our food system and the psychological reactions to food that have manifested as a result of our production system. 

Farmland reduction

Woolston, Bryan. “Soybeans are harvested from a field on Hodgen Farm in Roachdale, Indiana, U.S.” Reuters.November 2019.

In recent years, the number of farmers, amount of farmland and total number of farms have all decreased. What these statistics help to clarify is that we’ve able to do more with less. As farming methods and technologies have become more efficient over the past decades, food production has increased and so has the demand for perfection. These heightened yields are to ensure that demands are met for the foods that fit the proper size, color and shape demands of grocers and to account for possible disease and weather-related losses. The power dynamic in this part of the food system is heavily in favor of food manufacturers and large grocery chains. They dictate what the food has to look like and can even decide to reject an entire shipment if their demand for a product is miscalculated. Food banks will take in truckloads of unwanted food if they can, but the cost for transport is traditionally the onus of the farmer and they may lack proper storage, especially if an item requires refrigeration. As a result, the cheapest and easiest decision is often disposal. There are occasional opportunities to sell the food at a discounted rate to juicers and soup manufacturers, but these options are not always economically sensible or logistically permissive for farmers.

Grocery Store Food Waste

nrd/Unsplash

Grocery stores usually insist on fully stocking display cases with the belief that it will increase sales. Additionally, they generally remove products, in favor of newer food, within a few days of their recommended best quality date to entice consumer purchasing. This tactic is dictated by the socialized perceptions of the consumer which stems from hurdles at the individual and interpersonal levels. With only the upper echelon of products available in grocery stores, consumers still find reasons to reject foods based on cosmetic imperfections, arbitrary and non-enforceable date labels and even how much of a given product the shelves are filled with.

It has been estimated that 5% of all food in the waste stream gets composted or goes through anaerobic digestion, which are the two most widely used, sustainable forms of waste diversion. Usually, food waste gets sent to the landfill where food alone accounts for 21% of the municipal waste stream, larger than any other category of waste going to landfills or incinerators. Landfills have strict guidelines on how to bury and cover their waste and in doing so, they trap organic waste to a point where it takes longer to break down than it would through natural decomposition.

From the global impacts on climate, to the infrastructure in place to combat it (or lack thereof), to the socialized perceptions that people have about what food is tastiest, healthiest and safest to consume, food waste is truly a global issue. It’s important to understand that some level of waste is inevitable, but the extent to which it occurs is egregious. Much of our food system today is dictated by the Farm Bill and at a closer look it begins to highlight why certain foods face the production trends that they do.

 

The Farm Bill

USDA

During the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, people couldn’t afford to buy many farmers’ crops and consequently, they couldn’t afford to maintain their farms. As a result, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the first Farm Bill, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, to pay farmers to lower their production levels in order to increase prices of the crops as a part of his New Deal. In other words, the market was altered by the government so that farmers would continue to grow food. The law also dictated that excess production be purchased by the government and redistributed to those most in need of food, later formally becoming the Food Stamp program. By 1938, it was agreed that the Farm Bill be made permanent and reviewed every 5 years to be reconfigured. Each ensuing Farm Bill has addressed the most current challenges relevant to agriculture in America and over time has shifted in points of emphasis.

The existence and persistence of food waste is almost a luxury in a country as bountiful as America. Fortunately, food waste has become a more national issue as the extent of it has been better communicated over the past decade both in the U.S. and the 2018 Farm Bill included major provisions that directly address food waste. It created the Food Loss and Waste Reduction Liaison position at the USDA to better facilitate federal level programs to reduce both food waste and food loss throughout the U.S. This move strengthens the USDA’s commitment to halve food waste by 2030 in a joint effort with the EPA. The 2018 Bill also provides funding for a minimum of 10 states to begin developing and implementing municipal compost and food waste programs. It also helped to better clarify the regulations surrounding food donations. More specifically it allows for donated food to go directly to the hungry such as with restaurants being able to do so without having to go through a donation organization. It also included support towards infrastructure in terms of harvesting, packaging, processing and transporting excess agricultural commodities as well as funds for a donation program to specifically assist dairy producers and processors in donating excess milk. Lastly, it established the Local Agriculture Market Program which, as one of its many purposes, is tasked with facilitating projects supporting business innovations that work to reduce on site food waste for farms. So, despite the lack of addressment in past Farm Bills, the most recent one puts food waste at the forefront of federal funding directed towards the agriculture sector.

Food Donation (U.S.)

Donation

While much of food waste occurs due to cosmetic issues, the lack of infrastructure, education and communication has led to fear of potential lawsuits surrounding donating food. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was signed into law in 1996 to protect food donors. While not an enforcement technique to discourage throwing away food that may be donated, the law was meant to protect those who would choose to donate. It states that a donation made in good faith that may later cause an injury, will not hold the owner liable for said injury. Under this protection, the original donor would only be liable for proven gross negligence or for intentional misconduct in donating a tampered item. The law also claims that the donation must be made to a nonprofit organization in which the food is intended to go to needy individuals. It’s important to note that the explicit date printed on food items does not forgo them from being a fit item for donation. These date labels are often mistaken for food safety regulations and are one of the hurdles that will be discussed later on to better understand the regulatory policy surrounding food waste.

To receive protection under the Bill Emerson Act, a donation must be made without requiring anything of monetary value in return from the recipient. There is a bit of space in this definition, so long as nothing is required of the final consumer of the food in terms of financial charges. Consequently, the Bill Emerson Act protects a great number of individuals from potential lawsuits when trying to donate with the right intentions in mind.  It does just about everything it possibly can to encourage altruistic individuals to continue to donate food not just for food waste purposes, but to help supply those in need of food with sustenance. 

 The law itself serves its purpose in protecting those who want to help, but does nothing to enforce the redistribution of edible food that is likely headed for the landfill. Important and necessary, but only scratching the surface of the potential that the U.S. has for relative to the issue.

Bill Emerson

Southeast Missourian

PATH-ACT

Greenough Consulting Group.2017

The federal government also provides tax incentives for making food donations. In 2015, the passage of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act provided opportunities to enhance tax deduction rates if they were to meet certain edibility criteria. The way this works is based around the market value of the donated goods if they were sold and a proportion of that value is then returned to the businesses in the form of tax credits. This food must be donated to care for the ill, needy or infants and the donors must receive a written statement describing the donation from the receiving organization. Again, encouraging beneficial behavior, but lacking enforcement of limiting actions that perpetuate the problem.

Food Labeling (U.S.)

To expand on the aforementioned topic of food date labels, the FDA mandates very little in this sense. The only federally regulated food date labels are those on infant formula. All other date labels are optional indications of quality. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends that food manufacturers and retailers that volunteer to apply a product date, use the phrasing “best if used by” to help eliminate implications of food safety. They specifically mention that foods not showing signs of spoilage may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the printed dates. The intention of most date labels is to recommend when grocery stores should sell a product for optimal quality. While also explicitly stating that it is important for consumers to understand the true meaning of these dates, no regulation has been enforced to clarify any of this at a federal level. It’s important to mention that while states have the authority to dictate legislation here, the government agencies responsible for food safety are federal departments. 

The Food Date Labeling act of 2019 was introduced to build upon an earlier Bill that was similar in nature to help delegate legal precedence over these labels. It would mandate just two voluntary label phrasings, “best if used by” for food quality and “use by” for food safety. Legal insistence of a uniform language among quality labels would be a step in the right direction.

The Rest of the World

World map

Bassin,Charlotte.”Veggie Lovers World Map”.CPR News.2019

France

In France, a stricter set of legal regulations has been set to more aggressively tackle food waste. There, the cost of sending waste to the landfill is high relative to the rest of the world and therefore creates more economic incentive to divert waste. Perhaps the most well-known regulatory approach is France’s 2016 “ban” on grocery store food waste. I use the word ban loosely, because although this policy enables government enforcement, it lacks teeth. What the law actually requires is that large grocers sign contracts with food assistance organizations to donate their excess food. 

Those contracts do not require a defined amount or timetable for donations. Individual stores can be fined for failing to comply. While the approach has increased donations, this can move the burden of disposal to the assistance agencies. Perhaps the most important facet of this law was the creation of a zero waste culture. It showed that food waste was of importance from the top down. This culture has helped to land France on top of the Food Sustainability Index and is likely to help reduce food waste through further legislation, private sector contributions and consumer habits. 

France

South Korea

In 2005, South Korea banned sending food directly to landfills. To bolster efforts to reduce food waste, in 2013 South Koreans were required to purchase biodegradable bags to dispose of their food waste. Having to pay for these bags essentially serves as a waste tax and helps to fund disposal of the food waste so that it is recycled into fertilizer or converted to animal food. More recently, waste receptacles have been installed throughout the capital in Seoul. These allow nearby residents to scan a card to open them, deposit their waste, have it weighed and then pay on the spot for the physical weight of their food waste. 

These practices help to encourage at home composting and overall waste reduction. From 1995 to 2019, food waste recycling rates have gone from 2% to 95% in all of South Korea. While the results are encouraging, it’s important to note that those affected by this waste tax seemingly have chosen to find ways to reduce their waste output. It’s not far-fetched to think that a similar policy in America could cause many people to find alternative ways to relocate their waste rather than reducing it altogether. 

South Korea

Denmark

Denmark has taken a different approach than the U.S., France and South Korea in that the Danish Minister for Environment and Food has created a subsidy pool specifically to support projects developed to cut food waste in Denmark. Considering that repurposing waste should already save money, this further increases the economic benefits of waste reduction. Interestingly enough, the Danish government credit’s one woman with most of their reported 25% decrease in food waste in the 5 years prior to 2012. That woman is Selina Juul, whose nonprofit, Stop Spild Af Mad (Stop Wasting Food in English) started as a Facebook campaign and grew into a national educational movement. 

Businesses began to follow as grocery chains began to offer discounts for food closer to their quality dates and leftover items from restaurants and bakeries were connected through new digital initiatives. Denmark serves to show that if an issue gets enough proper recognition, nationally, enforcement of policy may not be as important. 

Denmark

Food waste truly is a luxury. While there are people who struggle to find their next meal, many of us still find ways to dispose of edible food. Unfortunately, there is no clear cut answer to address food waste from a policy perspective. What is clear from every policy reviewed is that people are receptive to national recognition. The Federal Government in America is responsible for ensuring the livelihood of over 330 million people. If more members were to prioritize addressing food waste, I think it’s likely the people would begin to do so too. It’s naive to think the government will end food waste, but what they can do is get the ball rolling. Let’s continue to encourage our policy makers to enact legislation such as the Food Date Labeling Act of 2019, but also help to do our part to reduce waste and spread the message. For now, let’s create an American culture that is not comfortable with good food going to waste and see where to go from there. 

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