Reduce Waste in the Food Supply Chain

Building a Sustainable Future


Reduce Waste in the Food Supply Chain

The U.S. wastes a staggering 133 billion pounds of food every year, accounting for 40 percent of all food produced in the country, at an annual cost of $161 billion. Wasted food squanders the natural resources, energy, and labor that produced, processed, and distributed it, and generates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, since most food waste is sent to landfills, where it releases methane. U.S. food waste causes 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, 14 percent of all freshwater use, 18 percent of all cropland use, and 24 percent of all landfill inputs. At the same time, one in six Americans struggle with food insecurity.

Fortunately, there are many proven, scalable solutions that yield environmental and social benefits while also creating jobs and yielding net economic gains. Public policy plays an important role in accelerating the implementation of these solutions, affording policymakers a unique opportunity, given the benefits and economic viability of these solutions, the broad, bipartisan public support for food waste reduction, and the unpopularity of actively lobbying against food waste solutions.

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Food waste reduction solutions fall into three primary categories:

  • Prevention: keeping food from going to waste at all points in the supply chain (i.e., farms, food processors, grocery retailers, restaurants, foodservice providers, and consumers);

  • Recovery: facilitating the donation of edible food; and

  • Recycling: using techniques like composting or conversion of food waste to animal feed rather than sending food to landfills.

The most effective food waste policies are waste bans and recycling laws that prohibit food waste from being sent to landfills. Waste producers are required to compost their organic waste, which can serve as a powerful motivator to reduce the waste. Specifics of these laws vary, from including consumer-generated waste to only applying to businesses over a certain size. These policies can be challenging to enact and implement, but they have the greatest impact, by requiring large-scale organics recycling and incentivizing prevention and recovery.

Policies to facilitate food donations also reduce the waste stream, while providing food for those who need it. The federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act provides liability protections for food donors, but many businesses are still reluctant to donate due to fear of liability. States can reduce these concerns by offering explicit liability protections for food donations, including protections for donations made directly to the recipient and protections for the donation of past-date food. States can also establish tax incentives to promote donation. Nine states have done so, primarily focusing on donation of farm products.

Standardization of date labels (“best by,” “sell by,” etc.) can also dramatically reduce food waste. For all foods except baby formula, these dates are unregulated at the federal level, and they don’t reflect actual food safety standards, but they do cause confusion, leading to an estimated 20 percent of consumer food waste. Some states prohibit sale or donation of foods after the label date, even when the date doesn’t reflect food safety standards. In the absence of federal regulation, states can eliminate product-specific labeling requirements, allow sale and donation of foods past quality dates, or adopt a two-label standard proposed by advocates: “best if used by” to indicate food quality, and “use by” to indicate food safety.

Policy Priorities

  1. State: Facilitate the donation of edible food by reducing liability of donors, requiring mandatory donation of surplus food, and providing tax incentives for donations.
  2. State: Divert food waste from landfills through recycling solutions such as composting or conversion of food waste to animal feed.
  3. State: Standardize date labeling or remove date labeling requirements.
  4. State: Fund campaigns for public education on food waste.

State Examples