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The Current Problem of Food Waste

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All throughout history, advances in technology has allowed for significant growth of the human population. With the first agricultural revolution introducing farming as we know it, replacing the previous hunter-gatherer societies, to the lastest Green revolution, where we are heavily reliant on mechanization and biotechnology to produce food at the fastest rate we have ever seen in human history. 

Yet, the United States Department of Agriculture, or the USDA, found that 1/6th of Americans still face food insecurity today. Maybe this could be a result of not enough GMOs? Maybe not enough pesticides? Herbicides? No. Two words: food waste. When many people are asked what are problems we have with our resource management, many would say deforestation, CO2 gas emissions, overfishing, etc. And this problem is still not discussed, given the magnitude of the situation. The USDA again found that in the U.S., roughly 40% of perfectly safe food never gets eaten, which amounts to over 365 million pounds of food each day. With both the demand and the wastage increasing due to population growth, it is imperative to reduce this problem to insure that America can sustain itself for the future. So today, we are going to first, analyze the most common ways in which the average consumer wastes food, then we are going to examine how the producers and big name manufacturers waste food, before finally proposing legislation that can help reduce the severity of a problem that is eating away America itself.

So how does the average consumer contribute to wasting food in the first place? Well, a lot of it has to do with expiration dates. The major misunderstanding with the “best by” or the “sell by” date is that they are supposed to signal when the food becomes inedible, when in reality, that’s just not the case. The “sell by” date tells stores how long they can keep it on their shelves for, and has nothing at all to do with freshness. Take for example milk. Dana Gunders of The Natural Resources Defense Council explains that milk is still safe after the expiration date, and even when it smells all sour inside. “Milk sold in stores is generally pasteurized, a process that kills harmful pathogens and eliminates the risk of foodborne illness, even after the sell-by or use-by date. Although the modern industry standard for milk quality dating is 21 to 24 days after pasteurization, states such as Montana requires that milk bear a date of 12 days after pasteurization and completely bans the sale or donation of milk after that date, wasting countless gallons of good milk.”

The “best by” date is just what stores put on their products to indicate when their product is at its peak taste and quality. This gives stores the ability to manipulate how often their consumers throw-out their product, regardless of the safety date. And this doesn’t only apply to average consumers, as it can also undermine efforts to reduce food insecurity. Flashback to elementary school, my family decided to clean out our cupboard of the unopened cans, and to donate them to the school canned food drive. However, food drives often toss canned food past the date marked on the can, as they risk being sued if someone gets sick from the canned food. Yet, on NRDC website, they explain that most expiration dates on foods in cans range from 1 to 4 years—but keep the food in a cool, dark place and the cans undented and in good condition, and you can likely safely double that shelf life from 3 to up to 6 years. This means the bulk of the food donated doesn’t reach the needy in the first place. This confusion is so great to where the Natural Resources defense council estimated that food expiration date confusion is causing up to 90% of Americans to waste food. Unfortunately, these problems occur at a much larger scale with retailers.

JoAnne Berkenkamp, a senior advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council “When you look at our food system farm to fork, a stunning 52% of all produce in the US goes uneaten. Awareness of this reality has led a growing number of eaters and businesses to take a second look at product that doesn’t meet prevailing industry standards for size, shape, color and other cosmetic attributes.” Personally, when I browse the isles at Food4Less, I would instinctively grab the most appealing-looking fruits and vegetables to buy, as anyone else would. But all of the bruised fruits and vegetables, which are still perfectly safe to eat, are thrown out by these retailers as it costs more for the company to donate it to other organizations.

Since grocery stores are only buying the prettiest-looking food, farmers are now also tossing out the unappealing food. A key example is a farm in California, where almost 90% of edible tomatoes thrown away based on appearance. If we save that 90% of tomatoes, that’s 90% more pizza we can make. That alone is already a strong reason why stores shouldn’t waste food.

Given the destructive effects of food wastage, you would think that there would be at least one law about expiration dates. But other than baby food, there are absolutely no federal laws regulating the use of expiration dates. Thus the US should enact the following 2 part legislation to reduce food wastage in America.

PART 1 is that congress should narrow expiration dates to two well-defined options: a quality date and a safety date. The established, nationwide format for quality would be ‘Best if used by ______’; for safety: ‘Expires on ______.’ This way, companies can still communicate to their buyers which date would still be best when to buy their products, while also minimizing the possibility of confusion between the safety date. This would be monitored by the US Department of Agriculture, specifically the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

PART 2 is that the government should expand tax deductions for farmers, retailers, and restaurants that donate high-quality food to nonprofit retailers serving people who are food insecure. This would mean that 1) the US federal government would need to spend less money on services that focus on food insecurity, such as food stamps, 2) decrease the amount of money spent to deal with food waste, and 3) decrease the number of food insecure citizens in the United States.

Frankly, it’s a disgrace that the US has such a high rate of food insecurity, while also having more than enough resources to drastically reduce this problem. Even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world. WIth the help of my legislation, the US can take the first step to achieve this goal, one pizza at a time.  

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