There’s no question that food waste is a fiasco. Up to 40 percent of the food grown in the U.S. is never eaten. But for all the talk of reducing waste, among environmentalists, humanitarians, and penny-pinchers alike, there are still misconceptions about what’s safe to eat and legal to give away.
So here’s a list of myths and facts, gathered at the Zero Food Waste Forum, a recent symposium of international food waste activists and experts held in Berkeley, California.
1. Myth: Food Retailers Can Get Sued if They Donate Food that Makes Someone Sick
It’s not uncommon for supermarkets to say they can’t donate food because of legal liability. But it’s just not true. Whether stores consciously perpetuate this untruth or they just believe the rumors is unclear. The fact is companies are protected by the 1996 Good Samaritan Food Act, which removes the legal risk involved when giving away food products to the needy. That said, several cities have recently made it harder (i.e., illegal) to distribute food on the streets to the homeless. But that fight has more to do with where people receive the food than who provides it.
2. Myth: Use-By Dates are an Indicator of Food Safety
Here’s a quiz. What’s the difference between these date labels?
- A) Use By
- B) Best Before
- C) Sell By
Stumped? Most people are. A As we reported recently, the European Union is moving away from use-by date labels for these reasons.
A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called The Dating Game explains that date labels have little to do with when food actually goes bad. “Sell by 2/10” doesn’t mean a box of cookies is suddenly poisonous on February 11. It simply means February 10 is the day that the manufacturer believes (often somewhat arbitrarily) their product is at its peak, e.g., the crumb is perfectly soft or the crust ideally crispy. But in fact, it is usually safe to eat well after that. To make matters more complicated, very few states have a legal definition of what date labels signify.
So how can you tell tasty from nasty? We’re big fans of the sniff test—if it smells bad, toss it. There are other tricks too. Drop an egg in water. If it sinks, you’re good to go. If it floats, steer clear. Several online guides have more tips. Stilltasty.com is one.
3. Myth: We Need to Grow More Food to End Hunger
You’ve heard it said before that in order to feed the world’s rising population, farmers will need to grow dramatically more food. The FAO expects that with 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, food production will have to increase by 70 percent. But how does food waste figure into that equation? In 2012, the European Union set a goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2020. A report by the World Resource Institute suggests if that target were adopted globally, we would have to grow 22 percent less additional food to feed the world in 2050. There’s a lot of talk about high-tech seeds and new innovations for higher yields, but tackling food waste is much lower hanging fruit, and most experts at the Zero Food Waste Forum agreed it’s what we should do first.
4. Myth: That Last Bunch of Lettuce Couldn’t Possibly Taste Good
There’s a saying in the grocery biz: “Pile it high and watch it fly.” Customers rarely buy the last bag of apples or the final carton of milk; they assume there’s a reason it hasn’t sold already. So supermarkets play to psychology and overstock displays, building pyramids of oranges and coliseums of cheese. Not only do stores order more food than they’ll ever sell, but products go bad faster when they’re exposed to the light and air of the store floor. How about a new mantra: “Last on the shelf, first on the plate.” You get the idea.
5. Myth: Ugly Fruit is Bad Fruit
And you thought high school cliques were shallow. It turns out there’s just as much pressure on fruit and vegetables to look good as there is on homecoming queens. Retailers have all sorts of specs on the color, size, and shape of produce sold in their stores. A Granny Smith apple that isn’t the right green won’t make the cut, for instance, nor will a banana that doesn’t have the ideal telephone receiver-like curve. The end result? Millions of pounds of perfectly good food get nixed.
In April, the French supermarket chain Intermarché started what it calls the Ugly Fruit Campaign to sell “inglorious fruits and vegetables” at a 30 percent discount. We’re talking carrots with two tails and Siamese twin eggplants—produce that is perfectly fresh, but just a bit off on dimensions. The Canadian Reporter says the company’s hip marketing has worked. Traffic to the Intermarché stores has kicked up by 24 percent, while the produce section alone is 60 percent busier.
6. Myth: Feeding Animals Food Scraps is Always Dangerous
Humans have fed pigs and chickens food scraps for thousands of years. But since World War II, the practice has largely been replaced with grain-based feeds. Today, about 80 percent of corn grown in the U.S. goes to feed domestic and international livestock. Grain fattens animals quickly, but food waste advocates say that by not using food scraps, farmers are missing out on an age-old, thrifty tradition.
Why the hesitation? In 2001, a breakout of Foot and Mouth Disease in the UK led to the extermination of at least 3.7 million farm animals. The disease was linked to the practice of feeding livestock untreated food scraps. The EU banned the practice in 2002. And the notion of serving up swill to livestock has made the entire EU nervous ever since. But groups like The Pig Idea argue that as long as scraps are heated properly they’re safe. There’s no reason we should be devoting massive amounts of fossil fuels or cutting down forests to grow so much grain. When wasted food ends up in the landfill, it converts to methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency agrees that boiling scraps at a high enough temperature zaps dangerous pathogens. Bob Combs, a pig farmer outside of Las Vegas, has earned press doing just that. His farm alone diverts 8 percent of food waste from the Strip to 2,500 pigs. That said, the rub in this country isn’t so much the risk of disease as it is convenience. To get food from grocery story-to-feedlot requires infrastructure and coordination, but those are surmountable challenges, especially with public support.
So much of the food waste fight comes down to getting people to think before they toss. In that sense, advocates could learn from the Keep America Beautiful campaign, which, starting in the 1950s, turned littering into a social gaffe. Now, we cringe if we see someone throw an empty potato chip bag out the car window. But as Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, has pointed out, few people have the same reaction to a completely full bag of chips sitting in the trash. As fossil fuels become more expensive and climate change tightens its grip, that’s a paradigm that needs to change.