Food Loss and Waste in the United States and Worldwide

Food loss and waste (FLW) has become a highly visible global issue. The United Nations set a target under Sustainable Development Goal 12 – responsible consumption and production – to reduce by half “the per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses”.1 How FLW is defined is important for measuring the extent of the problem and taking action on the Sustainable Development Goal target.

Currently there is no agreement on an FLW definition. The Sustainable Development Goal target uses the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) definition for FLW. Broadly, the FAO defines FLW as a reduction in food quantity or quality.2 Food waste is a part of FLW. Food waste refers to food that is in good condition to be consumed, but has been discarded by choice or because it has been left to spoil. Typically, food waste occurs at the consumer level, such as in hospitals, restaurants, and homes.

In the United States (U.S.), the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) defines FLW as the edible part of “food available for human consumption that is not consumed for any reason”.3 Again, food waste is a part of FLW, and can include food discarded by retailers and consumers. The USDA ERS does not measure FLW before the retail stage.

Post-harvest food loss is food removed from the supply chain at any point between harvest and consumption stages. The post-harvest stages are unique to different food products and contexts. Therefore, post-harvest food losses are broad in scope.

Present scope of FLW from production to consumption

FLW occurs at different stages of a food value chain, including agriculture, post-harvest, processing, distribution, retail and consumption. In 2011, the FAO estimated that nearly one-third of all food produced is lost or wasted each year around the world.4 This estimate is based on the mass quantity of food produced for human consumption that was lost and wasted from production to consumption stages. 4

Regional FLW differences

The value chain stage where food is lost or wasted depends on the context. Figure 1 illustrates per capita FLW by global region and by value chain stages: production to retail and consumer stages. The majority of FLW occurs during pre-consumption stages in both developed and developing regions. The per capita levels (kg/year) of food loss at the pre-consumption stages are similar across most regions. Within the pre-consumption stage, food loss at the retail level in developed regions is typically greater than in developing regions. Meanwhile, post-harvest losses in developing regions is typically greater than in developed regions. Food waste at the consumer value chain stage makes up a greater portion of overall FLW in developed regions compared to developing regions. 4

Figure 1. FLW at consumption and pre-consumption stages in different global regions 4

Causes of FLW in different global regions

The causes of FLW around the world are context-specific, and depend on the country, conditions, products and practices. Generally, the causes are different between developed and developing countries.4 The causes among different global regions are often related to the value chains stages where most loss occurs.  However, there may be upstream causes of FLW that are not seen until later on in the value chain.

Major causes of FLW in developed countries

  • Producing larger quantities of food than is needed results in extra products that may be diverted to other uses (such as animal feed).
  • High consumer ‘appearance quality standards’ (e.g. size, shape, color) for fresh products may cause supermarkets to reject produce or farms to reject products and divert to other uses.
  • The cost of discarding products is cheaper than using or re-using during food processing where foods are trimmed to the desired shape and size or errors during processing result in the wrong appearance, and products are often discarded.
  • Supermarkets carry large quantities and varieties of products to meet consumers’ expectations to shop a wide variety of items. As a result, there is a greater chance that products will reach their “sell-by” date and need to be discarded. Depending on the country or state, food date labels may or may not be an indicator of food safety.
  • With the abundance of food, a general attitude exists that people can afford to waste food.


Major causes of FLW in developing countries

  • Harvesting crops too early before they are acceptable for consumption, resulting in loss of quality, nutritional value and profit.
  • After harvest, food loss can occur because of poor storage facilities, including cold storage, and lack of infrastructure (g. buildings, roads and power).
  • Not enough processing facilities to process and preserve fresh produce.
  • Insufficient market facilities that provide acceptable storage and retail conditions.

Major cause of FLW in both developed and developing countries

  • Unsafe food that does not meet minimum food safety standards should be discarded. The end use of the product will depend on the cause for the food becoming unsafe for human consumption.

Consequences of food loss and waste on sustainable food systems

Sustainable food systems provide enough safe and nutritious food for all people in a way that protects economic, social and environmental resources for the food security of future generations.5 FLW threatens these resources and the sustainable food production, negatively impacting food security and nutrition for current and future generations.

FLW has economic, environmental and nutritional consequences. Figure 2 illustrates where FLW impacts different resources along the food supply chain. FLW affects consumers because there is less food available for consumption. In turn, producers must produce more food, which requires more inputs, such as land, fertilizer, water and labor. More food production may also generate more pollution. Ultimately, the consequences of FLW have effects at the public and individual level. 6

Figure 2. Food loss and waste along the supply chain6


Economic consequences

The economic costs of FLW include the cost of the food itself that is lost or wasted, the cost of inputs (e.g., for production, transportation, storage), and loss of income. People whose livelihood depends on food value chains, such as farmers, traders, processors and retailers, may lose income from FLW because they have less food to sell or they have to spend more on inputs to have more product to sell. FLW may increase the price of food for consumers. Also, consumer food waste means loss of money that consumers spent on their food purchases.

  • The FAO project, The Food Wastage Footprint, estimated that the one-third of all food produced that is lost or wasted equates to a loss of $936 billion U.S. each year.6
  • However, after including the environmental costs, social costs and production costs, the project estimated that the total cost of FLW is $2.6 trillion U.S., about the GDP of France. 6
  • In 2010, the USDA ERS estimated that 132.9 billion pounds of food was wasted at retail and consumer levels in the U.S., totaling $161.6 billion U.S. in food cost.7 Figure 3 shows the breakdown of waste and cost by food group.

Figure 3. Quantity and cost of food waste at retail and consumer levels in the U.S. 7


Environmental consequences

FLW impacts local and global environments at both production and consumption levels. Throughout food production the use of resources to produce food that is ultimately lost or wasted is an environmental cost. Resources not only include fertilizers and agricultural chemicals, but also water, fuel and land eco-systems. When food is discarded to landfills, decomposing food releases methane emissions, a greenhouse gas. 8

The final destinations of discarded products have different environmental consequences. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Food Recovery Hierarchy, Figure 4, ranks FLW management strategies from most to least preferred.

Figure 4. Food Recovery Hierarchy9


Nutritional consequences

FLW impacts food security by reducing the availability of food at global and local levels, access to food either from reduced income or increased food prices, and natural resources available for future food production.5 Nutritional quality and the food groups that are most vulnerable to FLW are closely linked. Animal products (e.g. meats and dairy products), fruits and vegetables are vitamin and mineral-rich foods that are also the most perishable food groups. Therefore, diet quality may be affected by reductions of important sources of vitamins and minerals.

Efforts to reduce FLW

Strategies to reduce FLW and work towards Sustainable Development Goal target 12.3 include infrastructure development, market improvements and innovations, public awareness, and legislative action. One challenge is the limited evidence on the effectiveness of these different interventions. Future research on strategies for FLW reduction will provide valuable information on what works.

Legislation and action by national and local government

National and local governments have legislation already in place and are introducing new legislation to address some of the major causes of FLW.

In the U.S.

  • Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-210): This act encourages the donation of food and grocery products to non-profit organizations that serve individuals in need by protecting donors from liability.10
  • Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015 (section 113): This act makes federal tax deductions available for food donations.11
  • R. 5298, the Food Date Labeling Act of 2016: This proposed bill seeks to create requirements for quality and safety dates used in food labeling. This bill was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016. No further action has been taken to date. 12
  • R. 3444, the Food Recovery Act of 2017: This proposed bill seeks to reduce food waste at all levels from farms to consumers through established food waste reduction requirements and standardization of food date labeling. This bill was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2017. No further action has been taken to date.13

Around the world

  • A 2016 food waste law in France makes it illegal for supermarkets to throw away edible food with fines upwards of $4,500 U.S..14
  • Since 2001, a food recycling law in Japan sets recycling targets for businesses to recycle food diverted during production towards animal feed, fertilizer, and methane gas capture for energy.15

Markets for imperfect and “ugly” produce

To address FLW caused by high consumer quality and appearance standards, new markets are opening up to sell lower-quality foods, such as fruits and vegetables, at reduced prices. These imperfect products, sometimes called “ugly”, are safe to eat, but do not meet high quality standards such as size, color and shape, and may have some bruising or blemishes.16

Corporate pledges and activities

A number of U.S. businesses and organizations have publically committed to reducing food loss and waste by 50 percent in their operations by 2030, as part of the USDA and EPA group U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions. More details on the champions and their activities can be found at:

Similarly, the Courtauld 2025 signatories in the United Kingdom have demonstrated commitment to reducing FLW. The signatories are businesses, sector and trade organizations, and local authorities who are taking action to reduce food waste. 17

Technological innovations

Innovations to create low-cost storage methods may reduce FLW caused by poor storage and lack of cold storage often required for perishable products. For example, farmers in Kenya began using zero energy brick coolers and charcoal coolers to refrigerate mangoes without electric power. Both types of coolers cool the chamber by water evaporation. 18

Another innovation is the use of mobile apps to connect farms, grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants to local food banks, homeless shelters and other charities to donate edible food that would otherwise be discarded to the landfill. Some of the mobile apps provide information and paperwork on tax benefits. 19

Mobile apps and social media can also be used to minimize household-level and individual-level food waste. These apps provide information on storage and product dating to maintain the food quality and safety, as well as cooking tips. 20 The World Food Programme started the hashtag #RecipeForDisaster to bring awareness to food waste on social media. Social media users can use this hashtag to share simple solutions for waste reduction by sharing recipes using ingredients that are close to their “use by date”. 17

Below are some examples of popular mobile apps:

  • Goodr: A surplus food supply chain that redirects excess food from businesses to non-profit organizations that serve the food insecure. Businesses can track their donations, which can be used for tax savings.
  • Food Cowboy: Using location-based technology to connect food donors (food companies or catering companies) with non-profit organizations that serve the food insecure. Also provides paperwork for tax benefits.
  • OLIO: Platform that connects households or businesses with surplus food to other users or donation charities. Users wishing to donate food, upload a picture of the product, brief description, and pick-up location.
  • USDA FoodKeeper: Provides information on food storage, safety and cooking to use food while at its peak quality and reduce food waste.

To learn more about ongoing work to reduce food loss and waste, see some of the different actors below:

Take a quiz on food loss and waste!



Primary Author: Jocelyn Marie Boiteau, PhD student, International Nutrition, Cornell University,

Date published: June 13, 2018




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