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Food Waste Info

Food Waste Info

What do we mean by “Food Waste”?

There is no consensus currently on a definition for food waste. Several organizations, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Research Institute (WRI) each have slightly different definitions. For purposes of this Clearinghouse, we have chosen to adopt the definition provided in the Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED) report:

Food Waste:  any food that is grown and produced for human consumption but ultimately is not eaten. This includes both:

Excess Food: edible food that is not sold or used by its generator

Food Scraps: inedible food, trimmings from food prep, food-soiled paper and edible food that is not ultimately consumed by people

Food waste occurs at all stages in the food supply chain for a variety of reasons. According to ReFED’s Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, over 80% of food waste can be tracked back to consumer facing businesses and households. In addition, as food moves down the food supply chain, the embedded cost increases, in part because of mark-ups from wholesale pricing to consumer pricing. This means the cost of food waste is highest at the household level.

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Often times, farms face low market prices and stringent cosmetic standards, making it harder to justify harvesting their entire crop. It is common practice to leave unharvested crop on the field to be tilled back into the soil. Since most food that is wasted at the farm level stays on site, little data has been collected on the associated quantities.

Some common causes of food waste at the farm level include:

  • Selective Harvesting – not harvesting produce that is close to or below minimum quality and cosmetic standards
  • Culling – discarding of products based on quality or appearance criteria
  • Spoiling - due to improper or extended storage and handling



At an estimated 95%, food processing facilities have the highest rates of food recycling of any stage along the food chain. Processing facilities are generally well managed and efficient enough that waste generation is kept low. Furthermore, their consistent waste stream content makes finding stable recycling outlets easier for any waste and or byproduct produced.

Some common causes of food waste at the processing level include:

  • Trimming – removal of edible portions (skin, peels, end pieces) and inedible portions (bones, pits)
  • Production line changes – food scrap may be left in machinery and added to the waste stream upon cleaning.


Retail and Service

Due to high demand for freshness and variety, food retail and service businesses are pressured to eliminate food from their stock before it is past its prime. In addition, stock consistency is expected in many stores, which drives over-stocking of product leading to more waste.

Some common causes of food waste at the retail and service level include:

  • Overstocking
  • Confusion about sell by and use by dates
  • Damaged packaging, outdated products, & unpopular items
  • Food Safety Regulations
  • Rejected Shipments
  • Oversized servings



The most food waste occurs at the household level. Over-purchasing groceries is common for a number of reasons including lower pricing on bulk purchases, poor planning/ impulse buying and a desire for variety. Poor storage techniques also play a role in accelerating waste generation. In addition, confusion regarding sell/use by dates leads many consumers to dispose of food before it is actually unsafe to eat.

Some common causes of food waste at the residential level include:

  • Confusion about sell by and use by dates
  • Spoiling due to not being used in time
  • Lack of knowledge in proper storage
  • Purchasing perishable items in bulk
  • Lack of accessible recycling options

Videos From Our Food Experts

[1] “Analysis of U.S. Food Waste Among Food Manufacturers, Retailers and Restaurants”