We are wasting way too much food

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Contrary to popular belief, most food does not expire when the date says it does. Grocery stores can do something about this by giving away most of the ‘expired’ food that no one has bought to the 49 million Americans that struggle to put food on the table. 

Food waste is a huge problem in the U.S. According to the Scientific American, we waste 25.9 million tons of food. To put that in perspective, a school bus weighs about 11.75 tons. That means we waste a little more than 2.2 million school buses of food every year. We also spend $43 billion on wasted food. 

Where the expired food goes causes even more problems. Food in landfills generates methane, a gas 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide and that 34 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S comes from landfills. In a 2009 study,  researchers at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases concluded that each year 300 million barrels of oil (four percent of U.S. oil consumption) and a quarter of U.S. water consumption go into producing and distributing food that  contributes to global warming.

Grocery stores run under the belief that if customers need to see an abundance of products or they will not buy anything. Business Insider states that retailers stock their produce with the assumption that customers want perfect, fully stocked shelves. They do. Although, that has nothing to do with the quality of the food. Ultimately, however, this mentality contributes to waste.

We consumers have been trained to not only want the prettiest food, but also the food that isn’t expired. But is that food really expired? And people confuse use-by dates with expiration dates. Time says that 90 percent of Americans throw out food prematurely because the use-by dates on food don’t really mean much. For example, eggs can be eaten three to five weeks after being bought, but the use-by date is much earlier. The practice of food dating began in the 1970s because more Americans stopped growing their own food, but there is no law requiring there to be expiration dates. Tthe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) technically has power over expiration dates.  Dana Gunders, a staff scientist with the NRDC’s food and agriculture program says, “Sometimes a product needs a date, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a product cannot be sold after a different date. Or there is no requirement at all. Even with different categories there is so much variability.” 

Consumers are obviously pretty confused. Use-by and best-by dates are for the consumers, but do not indicate when the product will actually spoil. And, sell-by dates are only intended to help manufacturers and retailers. It is a stocking and marketing tool to ensure proper turnover of the products in the store so they still have a long shelf life after consumers buy them.

Another problem is that grocers do not give away the food that is ‘expired.’ Vendors believe that if they give away food and someone gets sick, they will be sued. But, that can’t happen! A law passed in 1996 called the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects individuals, corporations, wholesalers, caterers, farmers, restaurateurs, and others from lawsuits for donating food in good faith.

What can we do about this? Well, the University of Arizona’s Timothy Jones suggests “more careful purchase planning, including devising complete menus and grocery lists, and knowing what foods are lurking in the fridge and pantry that should be used before they go bad. And don’t forget that many foods can be frozen and enjoyed later.” 

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