3 Reasons Supermarkets Waste So Much Food & What We Can Do About It

Did you ever wonder how supermarkets manage to sell such fresh food day after day?

Sure, they restock to replace what they sell to their customers.

But it also turns out that they restock to replace the perfectly good food they throw away every day.

According to Tossed Out: Food Waste in America, a series being produced by Harvest Public Media, grocery stores throw away ten percent of the food they stock. Why?

1) It’s got a bump or a bruise. Consumers have gotten used to buying fruits and vegetables that look cosmetically perfect. The produce can still taste yummy, but if it’s got a blemish or has gone a little ripe, many shoppers will leave it on the shelf. Take a look around the next time you head to your market. You’ll probably see stock employees sorting through the bananas, apples, onions and potatoes and tossing what looks like perfectly fine food into a box they clearly intend to throw away. That food IS fine. It’s just not perfect.

2) It’s already prepared. Grocery stores are increasingly catering to harried people who show up on their way home from work to buy ready-to-go meals. Some of that food is pre-packaged into single servings or servings for two. Much of it is set out in salad bars and buffets so people can choose what they want and pay by the pound. Either way, at the end of the day, prepared food by law can’t be resold the next day, so out it goes.

3) It’s expired. Or not. Packaged food, which includes chicken, hamburger, sea food, lunch meats, dairy products, condiments, juices, sauces, even grains and pasta, often comes with a “use by” or “sell by” date printed on its label. The label doesn’t actually mean the food is going to spoil by the date on the package, but that’s what most consumers believe. Consequently, they don’t buy food that’s near its expiration date, and stores can’t return it. Out it goes.

Wasting so much food seems like a particular tragedy because it could be used to feed the one out of seven American households that don’t have enough to eat. Throwing away so much food also wastes a lot of money – $160 billion a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tossing good food is a real waste of natural resources, too. Billions of gallons of oil and water and untold tons of paper and plastic are consumed every year to grow food, package it, and transport it to the nation’s grocery stores. Throwing food away is like throwing away the resources used to produce it.

What Can You Do?

If you notice your supermarket throwing food away, talk to the store manager about these options to get the maximum value out of the food in the store.

Gleaning – In communities that permit it, non-profit organizations pick up non-prepared food and take it to food banks, where it gets redistributed in care packages or sent to local food kitchens. The store can probably earn a small tax write-off for making the food donation to the group.

Compost – Composting companies can pick up food that’s about to be thrown out and take it to a facility to be turned into organic matter that will rebuild the soil. The store could either sell bags of the compost material, or direct consumers to that purchase option on its website.

Compute - Computer software exists to help stores plan how much food to prepare for its salad and hot bars. Stores should be encouraged to prepare less ready-to-go food rather than more. Allowing employees to take home the leftovers is a good idea, too.


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Christine J.
Christine J2 years ago

We must all do our best to stop wasting food. We can't blame the shops if it's us who refuse to buy anything that isn't cosmetically perfect. Plus, this issue is bigger than the shops. The farmers suffer as well, because they have to discard fruits and veges that are absolutely fine but just don't look "perfect".

Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

Recycle them

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

Kroger will discount these items but Food Lion doesn't.

Catherine M.
Catherine M4 years ago

Working as a cashier in a grocery store, I amazed at the amount of the bulk foods that gets tossed out thanks to customers who don't want to pay the price. On a positive note, the produce department will sell less than "perfect" produce at a discounted rate.

John S.
Past Member 4 years ago

I'm not certain you understand how stores operate, but they are pretty good and matching supply and demand issues, it's the loss issue that is driven by consumers and government regulations that are the primary culprit.

Martin R.
Martin R4 years ago

Speaking only to Michigan where I worked all areas of retail grocery for over 18 years. One issue not mentioned is whether a given market gets 'credit' from the sales reps for dated and/or damaged products. This includes every consumable item though there are dated items like pills, cough syrup, hair dye, etc. that get pulled for new packaging changes to discontinued product. Some stores get the monetary credit, others a partial credit then sell the reduced item at their discretion. In the assorted comments about what should or could be done with the disposed items some have correctly noted lawsuits occur from those gaming the system claiming sickness from eating discarded produce, meats, breads, etc. One point no one has mentioned in their altruistic zeal is the unavoidable issue of shipping and handling. It takes time, money and personnel to pack, transport, and store dairy and frozen as well as produce. Bigger picture folks, 'bigger' picture. Most stores try to function and survive on a profit margin between 3 and 10 per cent. Compare with clothing that has a mark-up of 300% and more.

Erin H.
Erin H4 years ago

Terrible that this continues to happen

Tom Rose
Thomas Rose4 years ago

Thanks for the good suggestions. When I worked for the local McDonalds and went on break I was prohibited from taking food that was just past its serving date but had to have another employee fix me a sandwich ot whatever while what I wanted was tossed into the waste to be weighed and recorded as waste! Amazing, no? They kept their trash recepticals locked so no one could get in to feed themselves.

Jeffrey Stanley
Jeff S4 years ago

Thank you.

Robert O.
Robert O4 years ago

There is no reason on Earth for that type of waste. Problem also is that grocery stores would rather hang onto items that are close to expiring in hopes of it being bought and then throwing them out when they go bad as opposed to donating them at the 11th hour to people, food banks and/or soup kitchens that could really use them.