The Forgotten Food: What Gets Left on Supermarket Shelves – The Stats (Waste Matters! Part 3)


Grocery stores and restaurants are major sources of wasted food. These businesses either buy too much food they don’t end up selling, or it goes bad before a customer purchases it. In the last week, Spend Matters has published Part 1 and Part 2 of our food waste series. In our previous posts, we introduced the issue of food waste and talked about how much food we throw out in America. We also talked about those folks who “dive” in dumpsters for discarded but still “eatable” food items. Today, we look at how much businesses spend and waste on food.

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First, let’s take a step back and define “food waste.” It’s important to distinguish it from food loss – which occurs during the production, postharvest or processing of food. Here is a definition offered in a 2013 BRS report “Analysis of U.S. Food Waste Among Food Manufacturers, Retailers, and Wholesalers,” prepared for the Food Waste Reduction Alliance:

Food waste: Any solid or liquid food substance, raw or cooked, which is discarded, or intended or required to be discarded. Food waste includes the organic residues (such as carrot or potato peels) generated by the processing, handling, storage, sale, preparation, cooking, and serving of foods.”

It’s estimated supermarkets and restaurants purchase more than 400 million pounds of food annually. A third of that amount, however, is wasted. That’s more than $161 billion worth of food. Another statistic: 10% of food in the food supply chain goes to waste at the retail level, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The USDA offers the table below of data showing just how much of a product exists in the supply chain (as of 2010) and how much of it went to waste. For instance, according to the chart, of the 53.8 billion pounds of milk in the supply chain, 6.5 billion pounds was wasted at the retail level and 10.5 billion pounds was wasted by consumers.

Source: USDA

Source: USDA

A 2011 report from The Journal of Consumer Affairs also included some interesting data on food loss at the retail level. Fresh apples, grapes, peaches and strawberries are the top 4 fruits that most often go to waste. Fresh and canned tomatoes and fresh and frozen potatoes are the top vegetables responsible for the greatest amount of loss.

Energy and Resources Are Wasted, Too

What else may be troubling, and applicable to the supply chain, is that it takes 300 million barrels of oil and more than a quarter of the total freshwater used in the country to transport the amount of food that ultimately goes to waste. Clearly, we are spending an enormous amount of money and resources to grow, produce, ship, acquire, etc., this food that eventually ends up in a landfill.

How does this happen? How does so much of the food procured by grocery stores end up in the trash? Well, just off the top of my head I can think of a few ways…

At a grocery store, think of a browning banana in the produce section - a customer isn’t likely to choose that one over a perfect yellow one. In another scenario - a customer looks at cartons of yogurt to check the expiration or “best buy” dates. My guess? They will pick the freshest product – the one with the expiration date furthest away. I am guilty of doing exactly this. I am mindful of “best by” and “expiration” dates when I grocery shop. I want the freshest product, and one that will last the longest. But what happens to that brown-speckled banana or that leftover tub of yogurt at the supermarket? If no one buys it, it gets dumped, regardless if it is still perfectly safe to eat. If it’s not selling, it’s worthless for the business.

National Public Radio recently started its own food waste series and talked to food safety specialist Londa Nwadike who explained one problem that leads to wasted food: misinterpreting “best by” and “sell by” dates on packages. Consumers can confuse these dates for expiration dates. But, according to Nwadike, “They're actually meant to indicate how long food has been around, not how safe it is,” she told NPR. What can end up happening here, is shoppers avoid those products with nearing “best by” and “sell by” dates, leaving supermarkets with loads of products they cannot sell, and ultimately, are discarded. Sounds like exactly what I just explained I do at the grocery store.

Make sure to continue to check out Spend Matters for future installments in this series. There is a lot to discuss regarding food waste – and we plan to talk through as much as we can. Part 4 will include expert insight on the challenges of the food supply chain that lead to waste at the retail level. Also – please reach out to us if you have experience in the food supply chain or your business has taken steps to reduce the amount of food it wastes. We would love to hear your story!

First Voice

  1. Rod Averbuch:

    The large amount of fresh food waste is a lose-lose situation for the environment, the struggling families in today’s tough economy and for the food retailers. There is no single cure, or silver bullet for food waste reduction therefore, we should address the food waste problem in every link in our food supply chain. For example, the excess inventory of fresh perishables close to their expiration on supermarket shelves, combined with the consumer “Last In First Out” shopping behavior, might be the weakest link of the fresh food supply chain.
    The new open GS1 DataBar standard enables applications that encourage efficient consumer shopping by offering him automatic and dynamic purchasing incentives for fresh perishables approaching their expiration dates before they end up in a landfill.
    The “End Grocery Waste” App, which is based on the open GS1 DataBar standard, encourages efficient consumer shopping behavior that maximizes grocery retailer revenue, makes fresh food affordable for all families and effectively reduces the global carbon footprint.

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