Food waste targeted as response to high prices

by Morton Sosland
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When this page noted in a piece devoted to wheat flour consumption trends that the Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly a third of the flour produced in the United States is lost between milling and consumption, an industry executive expressed incredulity that such a figure could be correct. Even after the U.S.D.A. studies where such estimates are made were cited, surprise could still be sensed that in modern-day America so much of an important food ingredient is wasted, in distribution, in baking and finally in how much is actually eaten by consumers. That seems especially the case at a time when so much attention is focused on high food prices that put the value of wheat flour not consumed in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet, any head-shaking about flour waste is magnified many times by more recent estimates showing that the percentage loss of this one product is nearly equaled by the share of the aggregate food supply that ends up not being consumed. Suddenly, doing something about this loss is seen as a partial remedy for tightness in food supplies.

In the case of all grains, the Department calculates that slightly more than 30 per cent of the supply is lost. On a per capita basis, the Department places the primary weight of all grains destined for food consumption at 192.2 pounds, which becomes 169.2 pounds at retail after processing and distribution. In turn, the quantity of grain consumed per capita, after loss at home or in food service, is estimated at 134.4 pounds. This loss between primary weight and actual eating is 57.8 pounds per person, or 30 per cent. For wheat flour, availability of 134.3 pounds per person in 2004, when these estimates were last made, shrinks to 94.6 pounds as actual consumption. Here the loss between primary supply and eating is 39.7 pounds, or also 30 per cent.

In case there’s a need to measure in stark terms the extent of these losses, 40 pounds per person of wheat flour computes to 120 million hundredweights of wheat flour, the equal of three and a half months of flour mill grind. Not so incidentally, the quantity lost in the United States exceeds the national output in most nations, save other large producers like China, Russia, Egypt and Brazil. The flour loss represents sufficient food to feed millions of people, a calculation that not surprisingly has attracted attention in recent months of escalating prices and alarms about a global food crisis.

Considering the immensity of these wheat flour losses, it is no surprise that recent studies place the total of wasted food in America at 30 million tons per year. This estimate was made by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of its study of the effect of food waste on the total waste removal burden. While food waste represents 12 per cent of the aggregate U.S. waste "stream," the E.P.A. points out that most food waste ends up in landfills in contrast with other organic wastes that are composted. It is the U.S.D.A. that estimates that recovering only 5 per cent of food wasted could feed 4 million persons a day.

Little wonder then that these computations have prompted not just hand-wringing but stepped-up efforts to slash food waste, in the United States and in other developed countries where America’s 30 per cent waste is frequently equaled. The Second Harvest movement in America has pioneered in trying to recover food, but that is not enough and indeed this effort has been hampered by rising prices. In the case of bread, estimates are lacking as to what extended shelf life has done to reduce waste, but the figure is probably substantial. Just as current high prices are spurring maximum efforts to increase crop production, it is obvious that striving for operating efficiency in many aspects of grain-based food will help shrink this horrendous waste.

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