Supermarkets seem like an unlikely agent of social change. But they will be critical allies in the fight to get a handle on the United States’ food waste problem.
Despite one in seven U.S. households struggling to afford regular, healthful meals, the country throws away 40 percent of all food produced. Supermarkets tossed out 43 billion pounds of food, worth about $46.7 billion, in 2010 alone, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The problem spans all sectors of the food industry, but change at the grocer level can ripple outward in two directions ― back along the supply chain, to the farmers, and forward toward shoppers, whose buying habits are the ultimate catalyst for reform.
It’s worked before. Last year, the cage-free egg movement reached critical mass as chain after chain of restaurants vowed to stop using eggs laid by hens kept in cramped battery cages. Activists said the next turning point would come when supermarkets started to ban non-cage-free eggs from their shelves. Sure enough, Walmart ― the nation’s largest grocer by far ― announced plans in April to rid its supply chain of cages by 2025.
David Coman-Hidy, executive director at animal welfare nonprofit The Humane League and a driving force behind the cage-free egg campaign, declared Walmart’s move a “historic” decision that symbolically delivered “the closing argument on the era of battery-cage confinement.”
Plus, there’s already a model that could be imported from Europe to address food waste in supermarkets.
In February, the French Senate unanimously voted to ban large grocers from throwing away food that’s approaching its expiration date, instead requiring the retailers to compost or donate unsold and nearly expired goods to charity. Soon after, the politician who backed the legislation began work on getting the European Union to pass a law to limit food waste across the 28-country bloc. In March, Italy followed suit with a similar law.
Though nowhere near as comprehensive as the European legislation, several bills recently introduced in Congress aim to reduce the amount of food that supermarkets toss in the trash.
The Food Recovery Act, introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) in December, would beef up federal “good Samaritan” laws, which protect grocery stores that donate unsold food to food pantries from being sued if recipients get sick. A Senate version of this bill was introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in June.
In addition, the Food Date Labeling Act, introduced by Pingree and Blumenthal in May, would establish a uniform system for setting expiration dates on food. There are currently no federal laws regulating food date labels, and the labels that grocery shoppers find on their food can be confusing. As a result, people end up tossing perfectly good food that they think has gone bad.
If passed, the proposed legislation would require food producers to mark food with a label indicating quality (“best if used by”) or one indicating safety (“expires on”). Ideally, standardization would create more clarity for shoppers who struggle to understand what labels mean.
Experts estimate that making date labels uniform could save up to 398,000 tons of food every year.
There are other ways supermarkets could cut down on waste. The problem is that grocers don’t have a uniform system of measuring the amount of food thrown out along the way from the farm or food manufacturer to store shelves.
“One of the challenges is that measuring food waste is still pretty nascent,” said Meghan Stasz, senior director of sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry group that represents food brands like Nestlé and Campbell’s. “It’s like the early days of carbon emissions or energy use. It’s not a standard industry-wide business practice to measure your food waste yet.”
As such, grocers are notoriously reluctant to release any internal data. To address that, Stasz and her group set up the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, a consortium under the GMA umbrella, to encourage companies across the industry to begin quantifying their waste.
There are three main ways to do this. A company, particularly a restaurant or catering firm, could hire a relatively affordable service like Portland, Oregon-based LeanPath, which provides tools and software to log and track food waste. On the more expensive side, there are waste management companies that run a full audit of a store’s trash. Then there’s the cheap, low-tech option: emptying a dumpster and performing an amateur audit.
“We’re encouraging companies to get started in some way, even if that’s turning over a dumpster,” Stasz said. “Once companies are confident in the accuracy of their data, they’ll be much more willing to report it publicly. Right now, it’s a lot of extrapolation.”
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