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Americans waste an unfathomable amount of food. In fact, according to a Guardian report released this week, roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away—some 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually, an amount constituting “one third of all foodstuffs.” Wasted food is also the single biggest occupant in American landfills, the Environmental Protection Agency has found.

What causes this? A major reason is that food is cheaper in the United States than nearly anywhere else in the world, aided (controversially) by subsidies to corn, wheat, milk, and soybeans. But the great American squandering of produce appears to be a cultural dynamic as well, enabled in large part by a national obsession with the aesthetic quality of food. Fruits and vegetables, in addition to generally being healthful, have a tendency to bruise, brown, wilt, oxidize, ding, or discolor and that is apparently something American shoppers will not abide. For an American family of four, the average value of discarded produce is nearly $1,600 annually. (Globally, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of all food grown is lost or wasted, an amount valued at nearly $3 trillion.)

The Atlantic: July 15, 2016

While US consumers were aware that wasted food is a problem, those surveyed tended to blame others. Nearly three-quarters said they wasted less food than the average American, and 13 percent claimed they didn’t waste any food at all. “Tossing food that spoiled in the refrigerator has become habitual behavior so that people don’t necessarily see that as waste, because once something has spoiled it’s not seen as food anymore.”

Worry over food poisoning was the most popular reason for discarding food, leading Neff to conclude that consumers could use additional guidance to explain factors beyond age that can make food unsafe to eat, such as contamination and improper storage. One policy change she suggests: Encode the sell-by dates on perishable food labels so that only grocers can read them. “In the survey, a fifth of the people said they threw out food—especially milk-based food—on the sell-by date, which we know has nothing to do with whether that milk is safe to drink,” she says. Sell-by dates are merely the manufacturer’s estimate of peak freshness, not deadlines for safe consumption. A desire to “eat only the freshest food” was the number two reason respondents gave for wasting food. One reason for this, Neff thinks, is a foodie culture fostered by celebrity chefs and cooking programs that has convinced many to seek only perfect, unblemished food.

 John Hopkins Magazine, Fall 2015

Martin Shum