Food Waste in the U.S.: A Conversation with Jonathan Bloom

November 5, 2012

Raphael Meyer, MBA/MS Student, University of Michigan's Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise

I recently read American Wasteland, the 2010 book by Jonathan Bloom that analyzes the issue of food waste in the United States. Bloom’s main thesis is that we can significantly reduce the amount of food waste we generate by employing improved technology, modifying consumer behavior, and rethinking how we value and manage food. Bloom’s excellent, meticulously-researched account mixes investigative journalism with concrete solutions aimed at reducing food waste.

Given last summer’s heat wave and the food shortages and price increases we can expect as a consequence, I would think that food waste reduction would be as important as ever. I recently spoke with Bloom to get his sense for what had changed since he wrote the book, and perhaps not surprisingly, his message was clear: not much.

From my perspective, things seem to be improving, and food waste reduction appears to be gaining steam. BSR is actively engaged with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI), who jointly teamed up with the National Restaurant Association (NRA) to create a Food Waste Reduction Alliance aimed at reducing food sent to the landfill and bringing more edible food to hungry people.

In spite of these advances, however, Bloom reminded me that much work remains to be done. Retailers are compelled to meet consumer demand for produce that looks “perfect,” inevitably leading to “flawed” produce being thrown away or left in the field. There is still the widespread issue of “confuse-by dates,” the complicated array of dates telling consumers by which date they should buy, freeze, consume, enjoy, or use a product, which often leads to the disposal of perfectly good food.

And although a robust network of food donation outlets exists, many retailers remain hesitant to donate food to nonprofit food distributers out of concern that if someone gets sick, the retailer will open itself to a potential lawsuit. As Bloom is quick to point out, federal law explicitly protects retailers on this front. The federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996 specifies that donors are protected from this type of liability as long as they donate in “good faith, [without] gross negligence or intentional misconduct.” In other words, unless a restaurant or supermarket knowingly sends shelters bad food, there should not be any liability issues. There continues to be a lack of effective internal communication and awareness on this issue within the retail community.

Looking ahead, the opportunities for improvement remain significant. Aside from increasing the amount of donation that takes place, Bloom notes the obvious opportunity to reduce the amount of food waste generated in the first place, which is infinitely more important but harder to do. This could mean not throwing away perfectly good items immediately after their best-by dates, or resisting the temptation to stock an abundance of prepared foods that cannot be donated or re-purposed after they have been sitting out on a self-service buffet.

With the development of initiatives like the one BSR is collaborating on with GMA, FMI, and NRA, I am excited at the thought of the food waste problem being addressed in a thoughtful, comprehensive manner. And from a business perspective, I completely agree with the final point Bloom made when we spoke: “In addition to the cost savings, the supermarket chain that decides to be the anti-waste chain has tremendous opportunity to benefit from positive publicity.”

Raphael Meyer interned with BSR this past summer, splitting his time between internal strategy, research on sustainable consumption, and a materiality assessment for a global retailer.

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