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NRDC is helping ramp up federal efforts to prevent and reduce food waste from farm to fork.

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Help save money, water, fuel, and the environment with these smart strategies from NRDC and the Ad Council.

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CA Bills Aim to Relieve Doubt and Keep Good Food from Trash
Andrea Spacht

Once again, California is leading the charge on sustainability solutions. Sitting on the Governor’s desk are two bills that will help cut through confusion and encourage getting good food into people’s bellies instead of tossed into the trash. 

In the U.S., up to 40 percent of our food goes uneaten. Food loss and waste occurs at every stage of the supply chain.  And by the time our food gets to our table a lot of resources have gone into it including water, fertilizer, and land to grow it; labor to pick, transport and prepare it; energy to move and keep it at the right temperature. All in all, our wasted food has an annual cost estimated at $218 billion. Even in California, where we have some of the most progressive recycling targets and significant compost collection infrastructure, about 5.6 million tons of food is sent to landfills every year. 

AB 1219, the California Good Samaritan Food Donation Act authored by Assembly Member Susan Talamantes Eggman strengthens and expands liability protections for food donors to further encourage donation of surplus food to hungry people. Both the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and a 1977 California law protect individuals, businesses, and government entities that donate food to nonprofit food recovery organizations. Despite these protections, a lot of wholesome surplus food goes to waste. 

Last year, NRDC and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic outlined recommendations for how the Emerson Act could be improved. AB 1219 codifies two of those recommendations in California: donations to individuals and donation of past-date food. Currently, only food donations to nonprofit charitable organizations or a food bank are protected from legal liability. The bill expands protections to include donations directly given to end recipients. So long as the entity giving out the food makes a good faith evaluation that the food is wholesome, the donation will now be protected. 

Another important component of the California bill is that it explicitly extends protections to the donation of food that is fit for human consumption even if it has exceeded the labeled shelf life date recommended by the manufacturer. U.S. consumers and businesses needlessly trash billions of pounds of food due to confusion over how to interpret the various date labels printed on food. However, almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food.  In fact, the dates are generally suggestions by manufacturers for when food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat. So long as it remains wholesome, surplus food should be donated to feed people, not buried in a landfill.

Image of egg carton with Sell by date label

Photo: Andrea Spacht

Speaking of those food dates, AB 954, authored by Assembly Member David Chiu, aims to cut through the confusion and streamline food date labels by encouraging the voluntary use of one term to indicate the quality of a product and one phrase to indicate the safety of a product rather than the myriad date descriptors that are used now. The bill requires the California Department of Food and Agriculture to publish information and encourage food manufacturers to use uniform terms on food product labels. “BEST if Used by” or “BEST if Used or Frozen by” would indicate the date by which best quality can be expected whereas “USE by” or “USE by or Freeze by” would indicate the date through which food should be consumed or frozen because the product has increased safety concerns with time. Furthermore, if the bill is signed, the department would encourage food distributors and retailers to stop using “sell by” date labels or to hide them from consumers (these dates are really meant for grocers and are typically earlier, but consumers mistake them to mean the product is bad).  Additionally, the bill includes a consumer education component to help us all understand how these labels are being used.

In December 2016, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service released new guidance recommending that manufacturers and retailers use “Best if used by” as the universal terminology to indicate quality.  And comprehensive food waste bills, including the same standards for date labeling on food, have been introduced federally. Last week, a coalition of global food companies issued a call to action asking food producers and retailers to simplify date labels and to partner with government agencies to educate consumers. 

The time is ripe for meaningful action to cut food waste. In signing these bills, Governor Brown will set California further ahead on the path to achieving a more efficient and secure food system.  Perhaps the Feds will follow suit?

AB 1219 is cosponsored by Californians Against Waste and the California Association of Food Banks.  AB 954 is sponsored by Californians Against Waste.

Blog Post

California legislative wrap-up

Blog Post

Comprehensive federal legislation to reduce wasted food has just been introduced in both the House and Senate.

WASTED: Second Edition of NRDC’s Landmark Food Waste Report
Dana Gunders JoAnne Berkenkamp Darby Hoover Andrea Spacht

Food waste occurs at all levels of the supply chain. We leave entire fields unharvested, reject produce solely for cosmetic reasons, throw out anything past or even close to its “use by” date, inundate restaurant patrons with massive portions, and let absurd amounts of food rot in the back of our fridges.

Wasting food is not only expensive, it’s also an environmental tragedy because of the enormous loss of natural resources that were used to get food from seed to the table. A staggering amount of climate pollution, cropland, water, fertilizer, labor, and energy goes into producing all that uneaten food, which ultimately adds up to a fifth of everything that’s thrown into landfill.

Report Wasted: How America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill.

In 2012, NRDC helped spark a national dialogue about the alarming amount of food that goes to waste in our country when we released Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. In the intervening five years, we have started to lay the foundation to address this colossal problem, but much work remains. And we felt the time has come for an update.

Today, we’re releasing a second edition of that report which captures the latest studies, success stories, and recommendations across the food system. It provides updated statistics on the environmental, economic and social impacts, analyzes areas of progress at the government, business and consumer levels in the last five years, and offers policy solutions for overcoming the problem.

Among other things, it reveals that, across the food system, America throws out more than 400 pounds of food per person per year. And when that food is wasted, so are the resources that go into producing it, including 21 percent of freshwater used by the U.S. agricultural industry. Wasted food also generates climate change pollution equivalent to 37 million cars per year. If we could redirect just one-third of the food that we now toss to people in need, it would more than cover unmet food needs across the country. 

But the updated report also shows that there’s lots to celebrate. In the past five years we have made progress in a number of areas: 

  • POLICY: We’ve seen a range of significant policies passed. In September 2015, both the United Nations and the U.S. federal government embraced goals to cut food waste 50% by 2030. Many states have incentivized food donation to hungry people. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued new guidance to standardize food date labels—which are a major source of consumer confusion and waste. 
  • INDUSTRY: Businesses at all stages of the food system have made commitments to reduce wasted food in their operations, recognizing the benefit to their bottom line. Especially notable, a major consortium of more than 400 retailers and manufacturers committed to cutting their food waste in half by 2025.
  • CONSUMERS: The largest source of food waste is people in their own homes, who waste more than grocery stores, restaurants or any other single part of the supply chain. Fortunately, a 2016 public opinion poll by the Ad Council revealed that 74% of respondents reported that food waste was important to them.  An NRDC public service campaign with the Ad Council, called Save The Food, also launched last year to help raise consumer awareness—and we just released a second phase of the campaign today.

However, there’s a lot of work that remains to be done. For one, data are still limited and it is difficult to assess whether we are actually wasting less food than when our first Wasted report was published in 2012. We need more comprehensive data to better understand how much we’re wasting and how we can improve. 

Additionally, further policy changes are needed to prevent food waste—such as food date labelling legislation—and to remove barriers and expand liability protections for food donation. More infrastructure is also needed to expand recycling options for food scraps.

In many instances, improved technological solutions, redesigned products or optimized purchasing standards could reduce inefficiencies that lead to wasted food. Many of these solutions are best practices that can be implemented simply by streamlining standard operating procedures. Because small actions add up to a big problem, it’s also true that small actions can contribute to fixing the problem. Each of us—federal and state legislators, food processors, retailers, restaurant owners, and every single home cook—can take meaningful steps to change our habits and save food, money, water, energy and land from going to waste. 

Our second edition of Wasted highlights a path forward.

Blog Post

I bet we’ve all had the experience of standing over the trash can, staring at what was once a tasty-looking snack, entrée or piece of fruit before we forgot about it and let it get scary in the back of our fridge. We’ve kicked ourselves over money spent on food we end up tossing out and pledged to do better the following week.

Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill
Report

In 2012, NRDC published a groundbreaking report that revealed that up to 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. That is on average 400 pounds of food per person every year. Not only is that irresponsible—it’s expensive. Growing, processing, transporting, and disposing that uneaten food has an annual estimated cost of $218 billion, costing a household of four an average of $1,800 annually.

Our original report sparked a national conversation about wastefulness and its consequences. In 2017, we released an update on America’s progress with recommendations for what needs to happen in order to reduce the amount of food we waste. It is time to stop biting off more than we can chew and clean our plates. There is much work to be done, but we are well positioned to undertake it.

This is about more than just food. It’s about resources. Even with the most sustainable practices, our food system uses enormous resources. Including cropland, fresh water, fertilizers, pest control, labor, and energy to transport and regulate temperature. If we never eat the food, those resources are used in vain. Wasted food is also a major contributor to climate change, producing more greenhouse gas emissions than 37 million cars. The majority of those greenhouse gases are released by growing the food, though a portion is released as methane as food rots in landfills. In fact, food is the number one contributor to landfills today.

It's Time for Investors to Lean-In on Wasted Food
JoAnne Berkenkamp

This blog was co-authored by JoAnne Berkenkamp at NRDC and Allan Pearce at Trillium Asset Management.

Food-based businesses such as restaurants, grocery stores, and institutional foodservice providers are a critical link between the farm and our forks. However, these types of businesses also generate a great deal of food waste, estimated at four out of every ten pounds of food wasted. All that wasted food is valued at roughly $57 billion per year. Food companies pay to purchase, transport, handle, prepare, market, and dispose of food that goes unsold and the impact on their bottom line can be significant. Conversely, a recent study of corporate food waste reduction initiatives found that every dollar invested in those efforts yielded a net financial return averaging $14. Food businesses—and their shareholders—benefit when they cut waste.

The sheer magnitude of wasted food has driven this issue into the national spotlight, bringing heightened scrutiny to food-based businesses. In turn, investors that hold stock in these companies, such as pension funds, endowments, and asset management firms, have a direct interest in understanding how the generation, management, and disposal of wasted food effects the profitability and environmental performance of companies in their investment portfolios.

What’s more, large investors have a uniquely powerful role to play in calling for better corporate performance when it comes to wasted food. As major shareholders, these firms can gain the attention of company leadership. Through their investment screens and the use of strategies like shareholder resolutions they are well-positioned to catalyze change in the corporate sector. 

In particular, we believe that Sustainable and Responsible Investors (SRI) should explicitly integrate corporate performance on food waste into their research processes, asking the tough questions and factoring them into decisions about what stocks to buy or sell. They should also call upon companies to demonstrate how they are managing the financial costs of wasted food and the supply chain, regulatory and reputational risks associated with it. In addition, investors should take a hard look at how food waste practices either enhance or exacerbate companies’ greenhouse gas and water footprints.   

The time has come for investment firms to become more active players in the national dialogue on food that goes to waste. We in the food waste arena also need investors as allies in raising these concerns with major companies and moving them toward greater action and transparency. With that in mind, NRDC and Trillium Asset Management have developed a new briefing paper to provide investors with key insights on:

  • The consequences of wasting food;
  • The risks businesses face when wasting food including hits to the bottom line, supply chain risks, regulatory risks, and adverse effects on corporate reputation;
  • Guidance for prioritizing corporate action on preventing food from going to waste, donating surplus foods and recycling remaining food scraps; and
  • Best-in-class examples of corporate leadership.

By incorporating these considerations into their decision-making and dialogue with food-based businesses, investors can play a pivotal role in catalyzing corporate innovation and accountability. We welcome their engagement.

Assessing Corporate Performance on Food Waste Reduction: A Strategic Guide for Investors
Issue Brief

Food-based businesses such as restaurants, grocery stores, institutional foodservice and food processors provide a critical link between the farm and our forks. However, a great deal of food—estimated at roughly four pounds of every ten pounds wasted in the United States—occurs among these types of businesses. 

Large investors, such as pension funds, endowments, and asset management firms, have a direct financial interest in understanding how food waste issues affect the bottom line for the companies in which they own shares. They also have a uniquely powerful role to play in urging companies to step up their game and move toward greater innovation, accountability, and transparency about food wasted in their operations and supply chains.

With that in mind, NRDC and Trillium Asset Management developed this paper to provide investors with key insights on:

  1. The consequences of wasting food;
  2. The risks businesses face when food goes to waste including impacts on the bottom line, supply chain risks, regulatory risks, and adverse effects on corporate reputation;
  3. Guidance for prioritizing corporate action on preventing food from going to waste, donating surplus foods and recycling remaining food scraps; and
  4. Best-in-class examples of corporate leadership.

By incorporating these considerations into their work, investors can play a pivotal role in catalyzing companies to perform at their best and make sure that good food doesn’t go to waste.  

Don’t Waste, Donate: Enhancing Food Donations Through Federal Policy
Report

While there is an abundance of food produced in the U.S., up to 40% of our food supply goes uneaten each year. This means that at least 62.5 million tons of food, costing $218 billion, is going to waste annually. At the same time, 42.2 million individuals, including 13.1 million children, were food insecure in 2015 and at some point during the year lacked access to a sufficient amount of food to lead an active, healthy lifestyle.

Much of the food being discarded by businesses across the country is healthy, nutritious and appropriate for donation to communities in need. And while food donations won’t solve the underlying poverty that leads to food insecurity, donation of healthy, wholesome food can provide a mechanism for immediate relief of food shortages and is a critical response to food insecurity.                      

A number of existing federal laws and policies strive to encourage food donation, including extensive liability protection and tax breaks that incentivize businesses to donate surplus food. However, limitations in these laws impede their effectiveness. Other policies need to be modernized and disseminated to better address the evolving landscape of food recovery and the emerging models that can help take food donation to a whole new level.

Prepared by The Food Law and Policy Clinic of Harvard Law School with the Natural Resources Defense Council as a partner, Don’t Waste, Donate: Enhancing Food Donations Through Federal Policy provides a roadmap for the federal government to remove barriers that now limit the amount of surplus food reaching communities in need. The recommended policy changes include:

  1. Enhancing liability protections for food donations, including for food that is donated directly by the donor to individuals or sold to recipients at a reduced price
  2. Improving federal tax incentives for food donations, including creation of a tax incentive for transportation of donated foods and incentives that reflect the added costs farmers incur to donate food
  3. Standardizing and clarifying food expiration date labels
  4. Better monitoring and encouraging food donation by federal agencies
  5. Modernizing and clarifying federal food safety guidance for food donations
Following the Money Toward Food Waste Solutions
JoAnne Berkenkamp

A stellar new report from the World Resources Institute takes a no-nonsense look at the business case for food waste reduction—at the idea that wasting food is an inevitable cost of doing business or that reducing food waste is somehow “too expensive” to make sense. What did they find? That food waste reduction strategies, whether pursued by companies, cities or at the national level offer returns on investment so high that they are difficult to ignore.

“The Business Case for Reducing Food Loss and Waste” was prepared on behalf of Champions 12.3, a global coalition of executives from governments, businesses, international organizations and other sectors striving to accelerate progress toward United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12.3. That goal aims to slash global food waste in half by 2030. NRDC’s own Rhea Suh proudly participates in Champions 12.3, along with leaders from Nestle, Kellogg, Sodexo, Rabobank, World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam America, Rockefeller Foundation and various national governments, among others.

In the corporate sphere, WRI analyzed food waste reduction efforts at nearly 1,200 business sites across 17 countries and more than 700 compa­nies, including food manufac­turing, food retail, hospitality, restaurants and other food service. They “found that 99 percent of the sites earned a positive return on investment. The median benefit-cost ratio—where half of the sites achieved a higher ratio while half achieved a lower ratio—was 14:1. In other words, half of the business sites earned greater than a 14-fold financial return on investment.” 

What’s not to love about investing a dollar and generating a $14 return? We should all be so lucky. WRI also found that restaurants typically experienced the highest returns, with hotels, food service companies, and food retail­ers tending to have ratios between 5:1 and 10:1.

The report also explores how food waste reduction efforts play out at the city level. While comprehensive city-based data on the financial impacts of food waste efforts are limited, WRI did a deep dive into an initiative by six boroughs in West London. Begun in 2012-2013, the initiative successfully spurred a 15 percent reduction in total household food waste. 

Further, WRI found that it had a benefit-cost ratio of 8:1 when only the economic benefit to local governments of avoided waste management and disposal costs and the cost of the initiative itself are taken into account. The benefit-cost ratio hit an eye-popping 92:1 when the financial benefit to area households is included. This reflects the avoided purchase value of food that consumers would otherwise have bought and then wasted. These data make clear that such efforts are beneficial not only to local government but to the residents of their communities.

At the national level, WRI also assessed the United Kingdom’s na­tion-wide initiative to reduce household food waste. At the core of that effort was the “Love Food Hate Waste” media campaign which put food waste front-and-center for consumers through TV, radio print and on-line media. WRI reports that, “By 2012, it had achieved an astounding 21 percent reduction in household food waste relative to 2007 levels. The ratio of purely financial benefits to financial costs attributable to the UK initiative was more than 250 to 1... In other words, every £1 invested in efforts to catalyze house­hold food waste reduction resulted in savings of £250.”

Far from being a money-losing idea or even a break-even proposition, food waste reduction efforts are proving their substantial financial benefits. This analysis is both a wake-up call and a source of encouragement for companies and governments searching for a path forward on food waste.

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