About that 27 percent

Whenever the discussion of food waste comes up, the 27 percent figure soon follows. According to the USDA’s helpful research wing–the Economic Research Service (ERS)–that amount of the edible food available for human consumption in the US at retail, restaurant and consumer levels is “lost to human use.”

My 3 cents:

1. It’s incomplete. It only counts food waste in those three areas, ignoring loss on farms, at food processors, wholesalers and in transit. And it’s not like these losses are insignificant:

Although ERS was not able to quantify food losses that occur on the farm or between the farm and retail levels, anecdotal evidence suggests that such losses can be significant for some commodities.

2. It’s a very rough estimate. As ERS noted themselves:

The loss estimates presented here are tentative and are intended to serve as a starting point for additional research.

3. It’s old. While it is the latest official research we have, it was published in 1997 using data collected 12 years ago! This research has been more of a resting place than a starting point. I e-mailed Mary Reardon, a spokesperson for ERS, to ask when we might see new numbers. Her reply:

“We are currently in the process of updating and validating all of the food loss assumptions at the different stages. Some of these tasks are complex. We are not pinpointing any specific deadline.”

I use the estimate “America squanders nearly half of its food” because University of Arizona anthropologist Timothy Jones, who has studied food waste for more than 10 years, says we waste 40 to 50 percent of all food. I think that range provides a much more accurate assessment and, while I can’t say he’s a “USDA researcher,” I can call him a “USDA-funded researcher.”

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