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Waste not … Want not?

With food being the single most common material found in landfills, three government agencies have collaborated to develop a national strategy to drive progress toward the national goal of reducing food loss and waste in the U.S. by 50% by 2030. The Draft National Strategy for Reducing Food Loss and Waste and Recycling Organics was released by the FDA, USDA, and EPA as “a continuation of the three agencies’ collaborative efforts to build a more sustainable future.” But does the strategy focus on the real issues?

The draft strategy focused on food loss and waste, defined as happening when food intended for human consumption is not ultimately consumed by humans. Specifically, FDA defines food that is removed in any way from the supply chain from farm through processing and distribution as food loss; and food in retail, foodservice or the household that goes uneaten as food waste. Thus, the strategy aims to prevent food from becoming waste by rescuing and/or upcycling it. The strategy also discusses the recycling of food that is lost or wasted (along with other organic materials) into new products such as soil amendments.

Based on these distinctions, the draft strategy features four objectives: preventing food loss, preventing food waste, increasing the recycling rate for organic waste, and supporting policies that incentivize and encourage these. As a note, the strategy does include the caveat “where possible” on its food loss and waste prevention strategies. Providing a bit more detail for each:

  • With food loss focused on the upstream aspects of the food supply chain, the strategy discusses the optimizing of raw commodity and food harvest/collection and reduction of food loss in food manufacturing/processing, storage and distribution.
  • Moving downstream, the prevention of food waste is focused on consumer education for behavior change, including partnering with the private sector, and facilitating and incentivizing healthy food donations. The strategy also includes research to identify food loss/waste drivers and determine effective strategies to change household behaviors; testing of new approaches in the U.S. and abroad; identifying technology-based solutions; facilitating best practice sharing among retailers, manufacturers and food service providers; and participation in international forums to share best practices, data and tools.
  • Related to recycling, the development of organics recycling infrastructure would be supported through grants and other assistance; and action taken to expand the market for products made from recycled organic waste; enhance support to advance de-centralized organics recycling; build, refine, and share tools and data to aid decision-making about infrastructure investments and waste management; and address contamination in recycling.
  • Pulling it all together the strategy includes supporting policies that incentivize and encourage food loss and waste prevention and organics recycling, including international as well as domestic tribal, territory, state, and local policymakers.

In addition to these general areas, the FDA News Release discussing the draft strategy highlights examples of specific FDA actions including sharing of its expertise on product date labeling for consumer education; advancing tech-enabled digital tracing technologies to remove contaminated foods more rapidly and accurately from the marketplace; and encouraging uniform adoption of the Food Code’s donation practices.

While each of these is commendable, we see some aspects of them that completely miss the mark, primarily those related to date labeling and recalls. The strategy’s citation of the FDA and USDA “expertise” on date labeling seems a bit misplaced, as it is the unregulated use of date labeling that causes a great deal of food waste. In fact, a 2022 study, which showed that there are about 50 different types of food date labels in the U.S., found that 75% of respondents were confused about the labeling, and feel unsafe to consume foods beyond the labeled date, regardless of the wording accompanying it.

This also impacts food waste at the retail level, as a supermarket is required to pull product when it exceeds its labeled date, even when the date is unrelated to the safety of the food, and may even have little impact on its quality. Take, for example, a USDA study on eggs which found that when refrigerated, in-shell raw eggs were still Grade A quality after 15 weeks, on average. However, the USDA/FDA/CDC-partnered Cold Food Storage Chart still lists refrigerated, raw, in-shell eggs as good for only 3 to 5 weeks. Additionally, if the carton includes an expiration date, it “can be no more than 30 days from the day the eggs were packed into the carton.”  Even accounting for the controls of research, there is a massive difference between 30 days, or 3 to 5 weeks, and 15 weeks.

To take this a step further, while FDA’s Traceability Rule, once completely in force in January 2026, should certainly aid in recall speed and effectiveness – thereby reducing food loss and waste, both FDA and USDA should also reconsider the seemingly unnecessary amount of food that is recalled due to trivial and technical regulatory violations in the food chain that do not rise to the level of a public health risk. For example: A day’s production of beef may have undergone all food safety processes making it perfectly safe, but a failure to apply the mark of inspection can cause the entire lot to be recalled and destroyed. If a pesticide that is approved for lettuce is used on spinach – for which it hasn’t been approved, the entire spinach field is considered adulterated even if it is shown that any residues are below a level of concern.

There is, in fact, an entire class of recalls (Class III) which is based on situations in which the use of, or exposure to, a violative product is not likely to cause adverse health consequences – yet recall is required. Even if there is no health risk, there may still be a required recall, such as for presence of an undeclared, GRAS, nonallergenic substance, (e.g., excess water in meat products); minor labeling problems (e.g., incorrect weight or volume labeling); undeclared certified FD&C colors; or non-organic products labeled as organic. Although some foods can be rewrapped to correct a labeling error or reworked for other non-safety issues, it can be more time-consuming, expensive, and potentially cause safety issues such as foreign objects, than to simply dispose of the product (although that is not cheap either!). Class III recalls generally make up only a small percentage of all recalls, but this can still impact a significant amount of food.

The comment period on the draft strategy is open through Jan. 4, 2024, with FDA seeking particular comment on three questions:

  • What actions could help the U.S. meet its goals that are not reflected in the draft?
  • What type of research should be funded?
  • What actions would result in more equitable outcomes for underserved and/or food insecure communities?

Reducing food waste is an increasingly important need, and we applaud the federal efforts to come up with programs to do just that. But we would urge broader thinking, as noted above, to find ways to get safe, edible food to those that need it most – even if it is technically in violation of regulations. This may be heresy to some, but it is beyond time to do a better job of reducing waste in today’s environment of high food costs and challenging supply chains, even if it requires some out-of-the-box thinking.

For more information and assistance on effective traceability, production efficiency and recall and crisis management, give TAG a call or visit:


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