When It Comes to Food, Americans Are Shamefully Wasteful

grocery store
Americans toss out 80 billion pounds of edible food each year. REUTERS/Jim Young

An endless stream of reports from public health officials about foodborne illness has created often unwarranted fear around the dangers of tainted or spoiled food. We all want assurance that what we eat won't cause some sort of violent sickness. This may be why so many people are sticklers when it comes to tossing out an item from the fridge once it hits its "sell by" date.

But this mindset has also resulted in a culture where throwing away food that's still highly edible is simply the norm—even though there are some 48.1 million people in the U.S. who live in food-insecure households. The amount of food wasted in 2010 alone could have provided 1,249 calories each day to pretty much everyone in the U.S. population for the entire year.

A study published Thursday in PLOS One suggests Americans throw out approximately 80 billion pounds of food each year, and nearly half don't even realize food waste is actually a problem in the country.

In fact, the researchers from Ohio State University found many people believe tossing out eggs and other items just a few days past their expiration date is actually beneficial for limiting the risk of getting sick.

The study is based on a national survey administered to 500 people who provide a demographic representation of the U.S. population. The researchers found 68 percent of respondents feel that throwing away food after the package date will spell the difference between health and sudden illness.

But a majority—77 percent—of people surveyed say they feel guilty about the high volume of food waste, even though it goes without saying that no one is holding a gun to anyone's head in the produce aisle.

Buying only what one needs is obviously a useful way to boost personal finances, but oddly only 42 percent of those surveyed agree that wasting food is also a waste of money. Nearly 60 percent also claim some amount of food waste is necessary for preparing meals that are tasty and safe to eat.

Plenty of research has proven that this is not at all true, and that "sell by" and "best before" dates are highly misleading to consumers. Most people think such labels appear on packaging in order to maintain food safety. But, in fact, the dates are used to provide information on when food is likely to taste its best, meaning what millions of people throw out each day is still actually safe to eat.

Milk, for example, has a quality dating standard of 21 to 24 days. However, some states require manufacturers remove the milk from shelves much earlier than that. In Montana, manufacturers are required to stamp milk with an expiration date that's only 12 days after pasteurization, even though the process of pasteurizing milk clears it of bacteria and harmful pathogens, so even drinking milk that smells sour probably won't make you sick.

This problem extends beyond milk, of course. The researchers say labels that encourage this behavior obviously will not help to reach the goal set out by the federal government to reduce food waste 50 percent by the year 2030.

"Food label guides or initiatives like the removal of sell-by dates could help reduce food label confusion and alleviate the perceived tradeoff between food waste and foodborne illness, which may be able to reduce some food waste efficiently," the researchers write. "Such an information initiative could be especially effective among high income households and females who waste food because of health concerns but strongly feel guilty about food waste at the same time."