Friday, August 14, 2015

Food Waste in America: What You Can Do Today

Sometimes you can acquire knowledge from the most unlikely of places.

A few days ago, I found myself sitting on my coach trying to figure out what to watch on television. I have my go-to “mindless” shows like Game of Thrones, Homeland, and Chopped (what can I say; I have an affinity toward reality-style cooking shows). Anyway, I had pretty much exhausted my go-to options so I began to click around On Demand; this is where I stumbled across a show called Last Week Tonight, an HBO show centered around delivering the news on a weekly basis. I decided to give it a go.

Write off the bat, the subject matter caught my attention: Food Waste. I quickly found that I had no idea how wasteful Americans actually are.

“In the United States, 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten. The estimated value of this food loss was $161.6 billion using retail prices.” - USDA Study

You may be asking yourself: what does food waste have to do with global climate change? Well, a lot. Think about the energy that goes into food agriculture: there is the water used to hydrate and the carbon emissions from the vehicles used to produce, package and transport. This waste increases exponentially when you’re talking about the energy in raising sustenance animals such as livestock—a bigger contribution to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than motor vehicles.  And, this just takes into consideration production! All the wasted food eventually ends up in landfills where it rots and releases more noxious gases into the atmosphere. Yuck.

I cannot say that I have ever volunteered at a food bank or volunteered for much of anything but even I understand that wasting food has a pretty big impact on the environment. I continued to watch Last Week Tonight and let me just say: Jamie Oliver successfully changed my mind on what was important to consider while shopping for food.

Here are the three things I learned from Jamie Oliver that changed the way I think about food.

1) There are a few dates on food and they mean different things

If you’re like me, you think that most of the date language means pretty much the same thing.  That is not entirely accurate. Here is a run-down of the types of dates from the USDA:

  • "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.
  • "Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

2) Manufacturers determine the date

There are no set guidelines or rules that a manufacturer must follow when adding a date to their products. The USDA explains this pretty succinctly:

“There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States.”

Since food dating is not regulated by a third party, manufacturers can really print whatever date they want. Essentially this means that the can of beans you get from one manufacturer may have a completely different date than one canned by a different manufacturer on the same day. So what should you do? Take those dates with a grain of salt and don’t be so quick to waste food.

3) The Use-by date is not an indication of food spoilage

As stated above, the use-by date is not a “safety date.” It is simply a date to inform consumers of when an item is best. If the date is past, it does not mean that the item is spoiled, rotten, or no good for human consumption; this was news to me.

Prior to watching this episode and a little research that followed, every condiment, can, bottle, etc. in my house that was past it’s use-by date promptly ended up in the garbage. It makes me sad (and, a little embarrassed) to think about all the food I have wasted in my lifetime. The sadder thing is, I am not the only one. As this Time magazine article points out “Almost 90% of Americans throw out food prematurely.” 90%! Let’s change that.

Never did I thin that I would get an education on sustainability from a comedic news anchor on HBO but again, sometimes you pick things up from the most unlikely places. If you’d like, check a quick clip of story yourself and leave your thoughts via the comments below. 

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