You may have heard the grim statistic by now: Around one-third of food produced in the US is never consumed, ending up in landfills as waste.
The biggest benefit of reducing food waste is self-evident — over 10 percent of US households experience food insecurity, and diverting food that’s safe and edible but destined for those landfills to those in need could help millions lead healthier, better lives.
But there’s another benefit of reducing food waste that’s starting to get more attention, and the EPA recently shined a spotlight on it in a new report: “Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste.”
“This uneaten food results in a ‘waste’ of resources—including agricultural land, water, pesticides, fertilizers, and energy—and the generation of environmental impacts—including greenhouse gas emissions and climate change,” the authors write in the report.
According to the EPA, food waste accounts for 2 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions — about half that of aviation. While meat, dairy, and eggs compose just a little over a quarter of US food waste by weight, the EPA report authors argue that there are disproportionate environmental benefits to reducing animal product waste. That’s because animal products typically require much more land, water, and energy — and emit more of the greenhouse gases carbon and methane — than plant-based foods.
But there’s another potential major benefit to reducing animal product wastage: preventing hundreds of millions of animals from entering factory farms in the first place.
According to USDA data from 2010, Americans throw out 26 percent of meat, poultry, and fish at the retail and consumer level. Harish Sethu, a data scientist and author of the blog Counting Animals, says America’s meat waste problem means we’re raising about a billion chickens, more than 100 million other land animals (mostly turkeys, pigs, and cows), as well as capturing around 25 billion fish and 15 billion shellfish (mostly shrimp), only to have them wind up in a landfill.
In 2015, the USDA and EPA set a goal of halving food waste by 2030 from 2010 levels. If the US can hit this target, it could help reduce the number of land animals condemned to a lifetime of suffering on a factory farm each year, and the number of fish and shellfish whose lives end in capture and slaughter — though the full extent of the benefit will require more research.
Claudia Fabiano, an environmental protection specialist on food waste at the EPA, told me that reducing US food waste likely wouldn’t cause a drop in US food production, in part because American farmers would compensate by exporting more of their product abroad.
According to Bruce Taylor, however — a chemical engineer and the president of food waste consultancy Enviro-Stewards — reducing meat waste should have some effect on domestic meat production. He pointed to his work with the major pork producer Smithfield Foods as an example. In one processing facility, Taylor figured out how to reduce the amount of pork going to rendering — to be used for other purposes, like pet food — by 30 percent.
Taylor says that if sausage demand goes up as a result, then it’s a wash. “But if people eat the same amount of sausage, then less animals are required to make the same amount of sausage, and eventually the market would correct itself,” he added. “Somebody would end up selling less.”
WRAP, a food waste nonprofit based in the UK, found that when British households reduced food and drink waste 21 percent from 2007 to 2012, they also purchased less food and drink.
“Reducing the amount of food people in the UK waste in their homes appears to have had a knock-on effect in reducing the amount of food people need to purchase,” Tom Quested, lead analyst at WRAP, told me in email. “Furthermore, research focusing on the EU suggests that this effect could ripple all the way up the supply chain, reducing the amount of food we need to grow.”
We hear a lot about eating less meat — I even wrote a newsletter series about how to do it. But I think it’s time for an additional slogan to enter the conversation: Waste less meat.
While cutting food waste at the production level is the most important step, reducing food waste at the consumer level is also critical because it accounts for about half of all food waste, and once food has reached the consumer, emissions from production, processing, packaging, and shipping are baked into the product.
So how can you waste less meat and other animal products? Understand when your food will actually go bad, use your freezer liberally, and plan ahead.
“A lot of people think their food is bad when it’s actually still perfectly good to eat,” Dana Gunders, executive director of food waste nonprofit ReFED, told me. “The dates on food are really an indicator of when something is of top quality or it’s freshest, but they’re not telling you the food is bad or that you can’t eat it.”
Her general rule of thumb? “If it looks fine, smells fine, and tastes fine, it’s okay to eat.” She encourages readers to visit SaveTheFood.com, a consumer guide from environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, for more information. (I also recommend this backgrounder by Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson on sell-by and best-by dates.)
Can’t eat it soon? Put it in the freezer. “Freezers are a magic pause button,” Gunders said.
“A lot of people are in the habit of freezing meat but you can freeze milk if you’re going away on vacation — it may separate a little but it’ll be okay. Eggs you can freeze if you crack them out of their shell and scramble them but don’t cook them.” When it comes to cheese, it’s best to shred it before freezing and then use it in cooking after thawing.
Lastly, plan ahead. “If you can, sketch out an accurate plan of your week and when you’ll eat at home, and have that in mind when you’re shopping,” Gunders said. “That’s really critical because shopping is where you commit to the food regardless of whether you eat it or not.”
Reducing waste at the farm level is vital because if meat companies can reduce their mortality rates — the percent of farm animals that die before they can be slaughtered — then they can conceivably reduce the number of animals they need to breed in the first place.
The biggest impact can be made in the chicken industry, simply because of its scale. Five percent of the 9 billion chickens raised for meat in the US — around 450 million chickens — die on the farm or in transportation on the way to the slaughterhouse. Two of the biggest solutions to bring that number down are changing breeding and transportation practices.
Nearly all the chickens raised for food in the US come from a handful of breeds that grow incredibly large, incredibly fast, which not only means the birds are in constant pain, but it can also lead to leg deformities and other health issues that cause premature death, like heart attacks and starvation or dehydration due to the inability to walk and get feed and water.
“Slower-growing breeds usually are more robust and have lower mortality figures,” Ingrid de Jong, a senior scientific researcher of poultry behavior and welfare at Wageningen Livestock Research in the Netherlands, told me in email.
After they leave the farm, millions of chickens in the US die on the way to the slaughterhouse. They’re often overcrowded into trucks, which can cause life-ending injuries, as can exposure to weather extremes on the road. Under the federal “28-hour law,” these trucks can move farmed animals across state lines for 28 consecutive hours without having to unload them for rest, water, or food. As bad as that is, the law is weakly enforced by federal agencies, exempts poultry, and only covers the length of transport, not transport conditions, according to Dena Jones of the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute.
Jones reviewed USDA records and found one cold-related transport incident from poultry company Pilgrim’s Pride that resulted in the death of more than 34,000 birds — the largest she had ever seen. “Because so many birds are raised for meat in the US — and the life of a single bird has almost no value to the industry — even 34,000 is viewed as inconsequential,” Jones told me in email. “I’ve monitored these records for more than a decade, and I’ve not noticed any improvement in the situation.”
Despite lack of progress on reducing the waste and suffering of animals in transport, there has been some movement on changing breeding practices. Over 200 food businesses, including Burger King, Starbucks, and Subway, have pledged to source chicken from poultry companies that use slower-growing breeds. However, only two of the top 10 chicken companies — Perdue Farms and Wayne Farms — say they’ll supply it.
Grocery stores, restaurants, and food manufacturers can also do a lot to reduce food waste.
Federal legislation to standardize expiration labeling — which is done by retailers and manufacturers — would go a long way to reduce consumer confusion and waste. Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic recommends requiring manufacturers that choose to use a date label for quality reasons to use the phrase “best if used by,” and reserve “expires on” for more high-risk foods.
Gunders of ReFED says getting food companies to use new technologies that more accurately predict consumer demand would help prevent surplus purchasing. Passing laws that ban food from entering landfills would be a big lever for change, and seven states and several municipalities have put in place such policies to varying degrees. This incentivizes businesses to donate more unsold food and work harder to prevent waste.
Fabiano of the EPA told me there’s one thing grocers could do to reduce seafood waste specifically. “We are so used to seeing these decadent displays of seafood on ice, but that seafood was generally shipped frozen and is just sitting there and defrosting,” she said. “So once you buy it that way, you do not have very long to consume that fish.” The solution? Selling more seafood frozen, which would make it last longer.
Bruce Taylor of Enviro-Stewards chalks up a lot of food waste in processing facilities to sheer inertia. Employees become used to inefficient processes and faulty machinery, and it can take an objective observer — him, in this example — to come in and notice waste, put a dollar value on it, and suggest small engineering changes that can save companies money and improve efficiency. In one example, his employees at a lobster processing factory pulled what was left off each lobster at the end of the processing line, which amounted to around $350,000 a year of edible meat being wasted.
“Everyone can see what’s happening, they just don’t know what it’s costing them,” he said.
Cutting food waste will be an increasingly critical part of reaching the world’s climate goals as the global population is expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050, requiring a projected 50 percent increase in food production from 2010 levels. Decreasing food waste should help reduce the need for increased production and slow down deforestation, biodiversity loss, and other environmental challenges.
That growing global population will also likely be eating more meat, and in the short term at least, much of it will likely come from factory farms. Food waste reduction will be an important tool in mitigating the number of animals churned through the system — and the system’s immense environmental and ethical toll.