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USDA Innovations to Reduce Food Waste Help the Farmers' Bounty Go Farther

Posted by Elizabeth Stulberg, Agricultural Science Fellow, Office of the Chief Scientist in Food and Nutrition Research and Science
Feb 21, 2017
An assortment of vegetables
In the United States, 31 percent of the available food supply in 2010 went uneaten. The estimated value of this food loss was $161.6 billion using retail prices.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

We’re all fortunate to live in a country that has one of the most productive and efficient food production systems in the world.  The United States produces over 430 billion pounds of food each year.  However, nearly a third of the food produced by farmers goes uneaten, representing $161.6 billion.  That’s enough food waste to fill 44 Sears Towers every year.  To meet this challenge, USDA scientists are developing innovative programs and using cutting-edge research to reduce food waste on the farm, on supermarket shelves, and in the home.

So where is food being lost?  It is difficult to measure exactly how much food people, retailers, and restaurants are throwing away without going through everyone’s garbage, so USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) developed the Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data (LAFA) Series, which gives a proxy for consumption and loss for over 200 types of food at the retail and consumer levels.

Food can also be lost on the farm when farmers don’t have adequate storage facilities to hold their freshly harvested food.  In August 2015, USDA expanded the Farm Storage Facility Loan Program to provide low-cost loans for on-farm storage facilities for all kinds of farmers.  This helps the food from being damaged by pests, pathogens, and weather so that more can reach store shelves.

But the story doesn’t end there.  USDA scientists are also working on ways to keep foods from going bad when they are on grocery store shelves, for example by increasing fresh-cut vegetable shelf-life.  The scientists looked at 50 types of commercially available peppers to identify the most promising candidates for future breeding projects.  They chose peppers that were most resistant to fluid leakage after being cut, which leads to the peppers staying firmer longer and reduces the chance of microbial growth.  USDA scientists also found genetic markers in lettuce that could enable cut lettuce to stay fresh for a month instead of wilting after just a week or two.

Even safe, quality, and good-looking foods may go to waste if a “sell-by” or “best-by” date is passed.  That’s why USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recently updated its safe-storage and date-labeling information and, in partnership with the Food Marketing Institute and Cornell University, launched a FoodKeeper App to help consumers figure out when a food that’s past its labeled “sell by” date may still be perfectly safe to eat.

Through economic modeling, targeted financial investments, translational research, and consumer tools, USDA is committed to reducing food waste with integrated, innovative programs throughout the Department.

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Rod Averbuch
Feb 03, 2016

Food waste is a lose-lose situation for the environment, the struggling families in today’s tough economy and for the food retailers. Fortunately, there are new ways to reduce fresh food waste.
The new open GS1 DataBar barcode standard enables new food waste reduction applications that allow automatic progressive purchasing incentives for fresh perishables approaching their expiration dates. These applications also eliminate labor-intensive manual relocation and promotional labeling of the promoted perishable lots.
An example of such an application is the “End Grocery Waste” App. This GS1 DataBar based application encourages efficient consumer shopping behavior that makes fresh food affordable for all families, maximizes grocery retailer revenue, and effectively reduces the global carbon footprint.

Feb 03, 2016

Great post!

Feb 04, 2016

Are there any plans to implement a food waste program such as what was recently started in France, where large grocery retailers must sign (or, maybe better in the United States, have incentives to sign) contracts with local food banks and charities?
Such as:…

I know many large grocery stores already do this, but since it is voluntary, maybe an incentive (tax break?) would encourage more companies to sign up for it.
Also, is that something the USDA would consider within their scope to propose or would that be another agency?

Vic Cherikoff
Feb 07, 2016

My company won an Australian Food Innovation Award for Herbal-Active which naturally extends the shelf life of fresh produce using essential oils from edible herbs and spices. It offers a way for retailers and consumers to save food, money and reduce waste while also making their food safer because it kills food pathogens too.

Joaquin Rodarte
Mar 22, 2018

Hello everyone, I am a student at the University of Florida and I have a passion for agriculture and sustainability. My father worked in the fruit harvesting business for more than 20 years, and in that time I have seen how much food can really go to waste. I am interested in starting a business with the main focus on combating food waste and making it in everyone's best interest to do so as well. Do any of you have any advice or can point me in any directions as to who I can talk to get my foot in the door? I am in Gainesville, Florida and you can direct message me if you would like to give me any more information.

Ben Weaver
Mar 28, 2018

@Joaquin Rodarte - Thank you for your query. One funding opportunity that might meet your needs is the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR). SBIR offers funding and support for qualified small businesses to support research and business capacity building for innovative business opportunities that could lead to significant public benefits. If you have a specific business proposal, you are welcome to visit the SBIR website for more information.