Nothing takes up more space in landfills than food. This isn’t just table scraps and coffee grounds. It’s also whole fruits and vegetables and even canned food, not all of which is unfit to eat.
Americans sent a staggering 35 million tons of food to landfills in 2013, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, comprising 21 percent of all solid waste. Right here in Maine, about 28 percent of what Mainers send to landfills is food, according to a 2011 study by the University of Maine School of Economics. In 2013, this would have been roughly 325,242 tons of food.
Put another way, Americans spend $166 billion every year on food they throw away, according to a 2012 study by two researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Households on average spend $936 per year to throw away 655 pounds of food, or about $2.56 every day to toss 2 pounds.
All the while much of the food destined for landfills could feed the millions of Americans who struggle with food insecurity. One in seven Mainers has insufficient access to nutritious food, the 12th highest rate in the nation and the highest in New England, according to the USDA.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine’s 1st District, has proposed an expansive bill, the Food Recovery Act, to reduce food waste from the farm to the kitchen cupboard.
It would expand tax credits for retailers and manufacturers that donate food, reduce liability for businesses that make donations and provide financial assistance for farmers and retailers to build facilities to store and transport donated food. It also, for the first time, would mandate uniform standards for food expiration dates.
But food industry insiders are mixed on whether the bill would have a significant effect on how producers and retailers manage food waste or whether it would spur them to divert more food toward hunger relief.
Throw away less
Many people, Pingree said, mistakenly believe that once food passes the date stamped on its label it’s no longer safe to eat and needs to be thrown away. That’s not necessarily the case.
“The truth is that it’s the manufacturer who comes up with those dates, and much of the time the food is perfectly safe to eat well after the date has passed,” Pingree said.
Manufacturers use best-by, sell-by and use-by dates to advise grocers and other retailers on how long food products should be displayed and when to rotate their stocks, according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Manufacturers also use date labels to advise consumers on when food likely has reached its peak quality, not when it becomes unsafe to eat. In fact, once food passes the date on its label, it’s still safe to eat for a few days or even a few years depending on the product and how it’s stored, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Under Pingree’s bill, food containers would state that date labels are “manufacturer’s suggestion only.” But Pingree likely faces long odds in passing this provision into law. At least 10 bills introduced in the 1970s proposed uniform standards, and none succeeded.
While the federal government doesn’t set a standard for date labels, aside from labels on infant formula, about 20 states set their own standards for select products, according to a 2013 joint study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and Natural Resources Defense Council. Maine only sets a standard for date labels on shellfish products.
That study found misinterpreting food date labels is a significant contributor to food waste, accounting for about 20 percent of the food Americans throw away each year believing it was unsafe to eat. This means households on average throw out about $187 in food each year because of misinterpreting date labels.
The study suggests a more uniform and clear date labeling standard, such as “best within XX days of opening,” would better educate consumers about the quality of their food and reduce the amount of food sent to landfills.
Another provision in Pingree’s bill proposes larger tax credits as a way to encourage grocers and retailers to donate more of the food they can’t sell.
A tax provision from her bill passed as part of the federal omnibus spending bill last month. It allows grocery stores, retailers and farmers to deduct the full value of the donated food from their federal tax liability, and it increases the maximum deduction from 10 percent to 15 percent of taxable income.
In 2010, nearly 43 billion pounds of food in grocery stores and retail outlets went unsold, according to a 2014 study by the USDA Economic Research Service. An industry group, the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, estimates about 40 percent of unsold food in grocery stores ends up at food banks, a major source of donations.
“Tax incentives are a benefit, but they’re not the root cause for why retailers donate,” David Fikes, vice president of community affairs and communications at the Food Marketing Institute, said. “Food retailers donate because it’s in their DNA to feed hungry people in their communities.”
Hannaford, for instance, has completely eliminated food waste from 40 of its 60 stores in Maine, according to the grocery chain’s spokesman Eric Blom. Hannaford says it diverts about 80 percent of all waste, including food and packaging, from landfills across all its Maine stores.
“We are enormously committed to reducing food waste,” Blom said. “Our sustainability team and individual stores work really hard every day to reduce or eliminate food waste.”
Blom said Hannaford’s 188 stores across the five states in which it operates diverted 18 million pounds of food that would have gone to waste to feed hungry families last year, with 10.5 million pounds coming from Maine stores. If the food isn’t fit for donation, Blom said, the chain works with composters, farmers and waste-to-energy plants to find a use for the remaining food.
The biggest hurdle to donating food for retailers isn’t whether they can get a tax credit or the size of the credit but limited resources to transport the food to food banks and limited storage at food banks.
“With perishable items such as fresh fruits and vegetables, time is of the essence, so having immediate pick-up and adequate safe storage is a critical concern,” Fikes said. “Food has to be safe.”
Pingree’s bill would provide financial assistance to farmers and retailers to build facilities to store food destined for use by food banks, which would help grocers create the infrastructure needed to divert more food to feed the hungry.
Her bill doesn’t address another major source of wasted food: food manufacturers have recalled because of unlabeled allergens. Nearly half of all recalls are for products containing unlabeled allergens, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Such recalls represent a huge barrier to reducing waste and growing food donations, Fikes said.
“An efficient protocol enabling more products recalled due to allergen mislabeling to be mended — designated as containing the said allergen — and made eligible for donation to food banks would mean these products could serve the higher purpose of feeding people,” Fikes said. “If we can ‘fix’ recalled foods, it would enable more food to be donated.”