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Kay’s Cuts: Doing more to address food waste

Beef Central, 08/11/2023

A monthly column written for Beef Central by US cattle and beef industry commentator Steve Kay, publisher of US Cattle Buyers Weekly

 

NORTH America is the land of plenty for most of its residents.

In terms of the food supply, one does not hear of people starving to death, as occurs in some third world countries. In fact, America and Americans discard more food every year than any other country.

That is a scandal in of itself. But even worse is the fact that almost 13 percent of US households (13 million) were food-insecure in 2022. The numbers for Canada are strikingly similar as a percentage of the total population, and Australia also waste a terrible amount of food.

While the world wastes about 2.5 billion tonnes of food every year, the US accounts for almost 60 million tonnes of that. That’s estimated to be almost 40pc of the entire US food supply and equates to 148kg of food waste per person. That’s like every person in America throwing 975 average-sized apples into the garbage, or rather, into landfills, as most discarded food ends up there.

In fact, food is the single largest component taking up space inside US landfills, making up 22pc of municipal solid waste. All told, the amount of food wasted in America annually has an approximate value of nearly US $218 billion, the equivalent of 130 billion meals.

Australia has same problem

Food waste is a major problem in Australia and has significant environmental and economic impacts, says the federal government. Its National Food Waste Strategy Feasibility Study reported that food waste costs the Australian economy around $36.6 billion each year.

Australians each year waste around 7.6 million tonnes of food across the food supply chain. This equals about 312kg per person and can cost up to $2500 per household per year. Food waste accounts for about 3pc of Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Australia uses around 2600 gigalitres of water to grow food that is wasted, says the study. This equals the volume of water in five  Sydney Harbours. The amount of land used to grow wasted food in Australia covers more than 25 million hectares – a landmass larger than the state of Victoria. As a sector, households generate the most food waste in Australia and are responsible for about 30pc of the total. This equals around 2.5mt per year.

Reducing food waste is a complex challenge, says the study. The solution must consider how to reduce food waste across different parts of the supply chain, from farms to retailers. Food service settings and households also play an important role.

The choices that individuals make have an impact on how much food waste Australia produces. These choices are influenced by people’s attitudes and behaviours towards food. Targeted behaviour-change interventions are therefore also a key part of the solution.

There are opportunities to further reduce food waste by effectively redistributing surplus food to Australians in need and repurposing potential food waste for use in other products, says the study.

Canadians meanwhile create more than 50 million tonnes of food waste every year despite 60pc of it being avoidable through better planning and awareness. The average Canadian household produces 79kg of food waste per year, according to the UN Food Waste Index. Nearly half (47pc) of the waste is generated at the household level, yet more than 60pc could be easily avoided, says the government.

Canada’s yearly food waste is equivalent to 9.8mt of CO2. Fruits and vegetables account for 45pc of food waste.

Yet one in eight households in Canada or four million Canadians, including 1.2 million children, were in food-insecure households in 2018. This number is higher than any recorded previously.

In 2017-2018, 84pc of people who lived in food-insecure households were in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia. But the territories had the highest prevalence of food insecurity, with Nunavut at 57pc, the Northwest Territories at 21.6pc and the Yukon at 16.9pc.

Down south, it is estimated that nearly 35 million people across the United States, including 10 million children, suffer from food insecurity. This included 12.8pc (17.0 million) of all households, according to a new report by USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS).

Food-insecure households (those with low and very low food security) had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members because of a lack of resources. The 2022 prevalence of food insecurity was statistically significantly higher than the 10.2pc recorded in 2021 (13.5 million households) and the 10.5pc in 2020 (13.8 million households), says ERS.

Misunderstanding labels

Food spoilage, whether real or perceived, is one of the biggest reasons people throw out food.

More than 80pc of Americans discard perfectly good, consumable food simply because they misunderstand expiration labels, says a report. Labels like ‘sell by’, ‘use by’, ‘expires on’, ‘best before’ or ‘best by’ are confusing to people, and in an effort to not risk the potential of a foodborne illness, they’ll toss it in the garbage, it says.

The meat industries in all three countries suffers their share of food spoilage. However, decades of packaging improvements – think case-ready – have helped reduce wastage of red meat and poultry.

But the industries can and should do more to educate consumers about recognising when a meat product is still safe to eat.

 

Further reading: Foodbank’s role in feeding needy Australians  

 

 

 

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