Waste at Each Stage of the Food Supply Chain

How could there be so much waste within the food industry and what can we do about it? The report “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill goes into great detail analyzing each segment of the food supply chain. I’ll hit the highlights but I encourage you to read the full study which is very well-written and easily digested by any reader.

I summarized the major facts in Waste Not, Want Not but wanted to share more on the types of loss and possible solutions at each step in the food supply chain.waste can

Losses in farming fall under two categories: food never harvested and food that is lost between harvest and sale. Factors which affect whether food is harvested include pest damage, weather, market price, food scares such as salmonellalabor shortages, and consumer demand. “Feeding America estimates that more than 6 billion pounds of food goes unharvested or unsold every year.”

Blemished peaches, odd-shaped cucumbers, crooked carrots…..these are all “off-grade” produce that are tossed because they don’t fit the ideal image of perfect produce. Some farmers estimate that more than 75% of their off-grade produce is edible. Some of this produce ends up in processing for lower-grade products (canned foods, etc.) but most does not. There are several ways to reduce loss due to culling. More off-grade produce can be used for secondary products, products can be sold at farmer’s markets where irregularities are acceptable, excess food can be directed to food banks, and most importantly changes in consumer preference to accept foods with blemishes that are perfectly edible. Personally, I think this demand for perfect produce is a symptom of our country’s divergence from farming and hand-picking our food….but that’s just my opinion.

Losses in processing are typically related to trimming and damage during packaging which varies widely depending on the product. In the world of potato processing only “50 percent of the potato goes out the back door as finished product.” Heinz redesigned their sauce packing process to improve efficiency and now saves 40 metric tons of sauce and plastic waste annually.

Transport and distribution remain the most critical component through the food supply chain. Indeed the costs associated with distribution often drive some of the losses described above at earlier stages in the supply chain. For example if packing and distribution costs exceed, or are equivalent to, the profit gained from harvesting a crop it is best left unharvested since the effort expended in harvest doesn’t reap any substantial benefit. Losses in distribution occur from inconsistent temperature control, delays during import, and predominantly rejected shipments of damaged or quickly perishing goods. It seems this area of the supply chain is the most limiting in terms of innovation.

Food service, retail, and home consumers account for more than 19% of the overall loss of food. Partly this may be attributed to “use by” and “sell by” dates which are gross assumptions of spoilage and lead to discarding edible food prematurely. At home we often don’t eat food fast enough before it spoils because of bulk purchases, poor planning, or impulsive buys. Over-preparation leads to more leftovers which accounts for a large amount of waste in food service as well as at home (interestingly the study points out the size of the dinner plate has increased by 36% since 1960!). Possible improvements include better food storage at home, more frequent (and thus shorter) trips to the grocery store, cutting back on bulk deals, and encouraging the industry to change package sizes which are too large.

The retail industry could make changes that would go along way to help the consumer. Superior marketing might drive sales in some instances but it also drives waste. Is it really a better value to get larger portions for your money? For starters, you probably can’t eat it all and the rest is wasted. Second, overconsumption of calories is a leading cause of obesity in the United States. The popularity of read-made foods such as rotisserie chickens has increased because it helps busy families provide a well-rounded dinner. However, these foods have little to no shelf life and add to the perishables which are discarded at the end of each business day. Much of this food often goes to waste. Rigid food menus in chains and franchises prevent restaurant managers from being able to improvise to use excess food. Food displays which are intended to create a visual effect (often the effect of overabundance) to increase sales can mean overstocking, improper stock rotation, and elaborate displays that increase the chance of damaging produce.

The US Food Waste Challenge, a joint effort by the USDA and EPA,  is actively trying to address these issues starting with consumers and facilitating recovering these discarded food products for hunger organizations. Want to know how you can make a difference? Visit the above links or check out the EPA’s Feed Families not Landfills program to learn more!!

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.


  1. Risa Pesapane says:

    School lunches are another area of waste which begs for reconsideration. A recent study by Virginia Tech calculated a daily loss of about $220 in the lunchroom which included 70% loss of vegetables served. Read the article here https://vafarmbureau.org/NewsVideo/NewsHeadlines/tabid/347/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/1457/Virginia_Tech_students_assess_impacts_of_school_food_waste.aspx

    School lunches have come under fire for a number of reasons in recent years, quality of healthy foods available, cost, and now wastefulness. The timing of lunch, quantity and quality served needs to be reconsidered.

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