Fat America Throws Out Enough Food to Feed Poor Countries?

A loaded headline and illustration assumes the worst about the U.S. - but a story on wasted food in America eventually shows that some countries throw out just as much.

Andrew Martin's Sunday Week in Review story on wasted food, "One Country's Table Scraps, Another Country's Meal," was beefed up with a headline loaded against America's apparently profligate and wasteful eating habits and a photo illustration of all the food the average family of four throws out in a month, in the shape of the United States. But the story itself shows (eventually) that other countries waste just as much food.

Martin led off with the eternal liberal lament of food banks running short due to high demand:

Grocery bills are rising through the roof. Food banks are running short of donations. And food shortages are causing sporadic riots in poor countries through the world.

You'd never know it if you saw what was ending up in your landfill. As it turns out, Americans waste an astounding amount of food - an estimated 27 percent of the food available for consumption, according to a government study - and it happens at the supermarket, in restaurants and cafeterias and in your very own kitchen. It works out to about a pound of food every day for every American.

Grocery stores discard products because of spoilage or minor cosmetic blemishes. Restaurants throw away what they don't use. And consumers toss out everything from bananas that have turned brown to last week's Chinese leftovers. In 1997, in one of the few studies of food waste, the Department of Agriculture estimated that two years before, 96.4 billion pounds of the 356 billion pounds of edible food in the United States was never eaten. Fresh produce, milk, grain products and sweeteners made up two-thirds of the waste. An update is under way.

The study didn't account for the explosion of ready-to-eat foods now available at supermarkets, from rotisserie chickens to sandwiches and soups. What do you think happens to that potato salad and meatloaf at the end of the day?

A more recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year, which is about 12 percent of the total waste stream. All but about 2 percent of that food waste ends up in landfills; by comparison, 62 percent of yard waste is composted.

The numbers seem all the more staggering now, given the cost of groceries and the emerging food crisis abroad.

After President Bush said recently that India's burgeoning middle class was helping to push up food prices by demanding better food, officials in India complained that not only do Americans eat too much - if they slimmed down to the weight of middle-class Indians, said one, "many people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plate" - but they also throw out too much food.

And consider this: the rotting food that ends up in landfills produces methane, a major source of greenhouse gases.

America's Second Harvest - The Nation's Food Bank Network, a group of more than 200 food banks, reports that donations of food are down 9 percent, but the number of people showing up for food has increased 20 percent. The group distributes more than two billion pounds of donated and recovered food and consumer products each year.

But contradicting the headline, which assumed thatfood waste was the unique problem of fat and happy America, Martin revealed that some countries waste as much food or more and provided other reasons for apparent wastage.

The problem isn't unique to the United States.

In England, a recent study revealed that Britons toss away a third of the food they purchase, including more than four million whole apples, 1.2 million sausages and 2.8 million tomatoes. In Sweden, families with small children threw out about a quarter of the food they bought, a recent study there found.

And most distressing, perhaps, is that in some parts of Africa a quarter or more of the crops go bad before they can be eaten. A study presented last week to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development found that the high losses in developing nations "are mainly due to a lack of technology and infrastructure" as well as insect infestations, microbial growth, damage and high temperatures and humidity.

For decades, wasting food has fallen into the category of things that everyone knows is a bad idea but that few do anything about, sort of like speeding and reapplying sunscreen. Didn't your mother tell you to eat all the food on your plate?

Food has long been relatively cheap, and portions were increasingly huge. With so much news about how fat everyone was getting - 66 percent of adult Americans are overweight or obese, according to 2003-04 government health survey - there was a compelling argument to be made that it was better to toss the leftover deep-dish pizza than eat it again the next day.

For cafeterias, restaurants and supermarkets, it was just as easy to toss food that wasn't sold into trash bins than to worry about somebody getting sick from it. And then filing a lawsuit.