06/08/2014 03:13 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2014

What Do Restaurants Do With Leftover Food?

Alexandre Tremblot de La Croix via Getty Images

In the restaurant industry, plenty of food goes uneaten at the end of each day. But what happens to it? Does it all just get thrown in the trash? We did a little digging and found out what really happens to leftover food at restaurants.

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First of all, there are several different types of leftovers: There are the raw ingredients that go uncooked (usually the result of purchasing an excess of ingredients); there are the individual components of dishes, like sauces, mise en place, etc., that are cooked but go unserved; and there are the uneaten leftovers or table scraps from a customer's plate.

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When it comes to raw ingredients that are still perfectly good to eat, these will usually be picked up by (or dropped off at) what are called food recovery programs, which make sure it goes to those in need. Sometimes it's a local soup kitchen or food pantry, other times it's organizations like City Harvest. Obviously if food is spoiled or rotten it will be thrown out, but items like bruised fruits and vegetables are fair game for food recovery programs.

Individual components of dishes are a bit trickier, because soup kitchens are generally reluctant to accept food that's been cooked and sitting out for a while. Restaurants tend to just throw these foods away, unless they can be delivered directly to those in need (in the case of complete dishes), or delivered while still warm, like soup. Fish that's been cooked and unserved, however, heads to the trash.

Some restaurants refrain from donating their uneaten food out of fear that they'll be sued if someone who eats it gets sick, but in reality they have nothing to fear: thanks to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, donors are protected "from civil and criminal liability should the product donated in good faith later cause harm to the recipient," except for cases of "gross negligence or intentional misconduct."

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In the case of leftover food on a customer's plate, that's always thrown away; nobody wants to eat someone else's half-eaten sandwich! And in several cases restaurants will save unused food and repurpose it the next day; this is the origin of many restaurants' "specials."

Food waste is a huge problem in America; according to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Americans throw away nearly half their food, amounting to $165 billion wasted annually. But it's good to know that at many restaurants, they're making a real effort to make sure that nothing ends up in the trash unless it has to.

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-Dan Myers, The Daily Meal

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