How Trivial Regulatory Violations Increase Food Waste
Updated: May 24, 2019
Up to 40% of the food in the United States goes to waste. Not only does most end up in landfills where it produces methane, food waste generates climate change pollution equivalent to 37 million cars per year, says the National Resource Defense Council. With food waste caused by practices throughout the food chain – from farmer to consumer, there is no single link that is responsible. However, there is a seemingly unnecessary amount that is driven by trivial and technical regulatory violations in the food chain that do not rise to the level of a public health risk.
For example: A day’s production of beef may have undergone all food safety processes making it perfectly safe, but a failure to apply the mark of inspection can cause the entire lot to be recalled and destroyed. If a pesticide that is approved for lettuce is used on spinach – for which it hasn’t been approved, the entire spinach field is considered adulterated even if it is shown that any residues are below a level of concern.
There is, in fact, an entire class of recalls (Class III) which is based on situations, such of these, in which the use of, or exposure to, a violative product is not likely to cause adverse health consequences – yet recall is required. Even if there is no health risk, there may still be a required recall. Additional examples are presence of undeclared, generally recognized as safe, nonallergenic substances, such as excess water in meat products; minor labeling problems, such as incorrect weight or volume labeling, undeclared certified FD&C colors, or non-organic products labeled as organic. Even some economic fraud, while certainly not to be condoned, can cause excessive waste of perfectly fine product.
Class III recalls generally make up only a small percentage of all recalls, but that can still be a significant amount of food. In 2018, seven of USDA’s 125 recalls were class III, impacting 25,176 pounds of food. More than half of this was from a single incidence in which a Wisconsin establishment recalled approximately 12,946 pounds of pork products due to misbranding. The products may have contained brown rice flour and glycerin not declared on the product label, caused by the reformulation of a product by a supplier without notifying the firm. FDA reports, which were less specific about amounts, listed 145 Class III products recalled in 2018.
While 25,000 pounds of food may not seem particularly significant to a large food processor, it gains importance when compared with average U.S. consumption. With consumers eating an average of four pounds of food per day, that 25,176 pounds could feed 6,369 people for a day, or more than 17 people for an entire year.
But recalls are not the only issue, manufacturer date labeling causes a good deal of consumer food waste. Not only does the lack of specificity of “sell by,” “use by,” “best by,” etc., cause consumer confusion and discard of safe food, but date labels don’t seem to always keep up with the latest science. Take, for example, the recent USDA research on eggs. Although the purpose of the study was to compare shelf-life of refrigerated vs. non-refrigerated eggs, one research result was very interesting in light of food waste. USDA states that refrigerated “raw eggs in shell” are good for 3 to 5 weeks, and for expiration dates used (though not required), “Expiration dates can be no more than 30 days from the day the eggs were packed into the carton.” However, the study results found that refrigerated eggs were still Grade A quality after 15 weeks, on average. Even accounting for the controls of research, there is a massive difference between 30 days and 15 weeks (105 days).
With all that said, there are some positive examples which the industry should take to heart – and do its best to apply to its own practices:
Recall limits. While USDA’s recent National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard cites labeling standard for BE food it also specifically states “the Secretary shall have no authority to recall any food subject to the NBFDS ‘on the basis of whether the food bears a disclosure that the food is bioengineered.’” Although this makes enforcement more challenging, it will most certainly reduce the potential for food waste.
Donations. Both the U.S. and E.U. have passed laws helping to lift barriers to food donations and redistribution. The U.S. Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act limits and standardizes liability, except in cases of gross negligence.
Ugly Produce. Numerous campaigns and businesses have been founded with the premise of ending the disposal of “ugly” fruits and vegetables as being unsellable.
Traceability. Need it even be discussed how much waste could be reduced with quick and accurate traceability to the source. One need only ask leafy greens, spinach, or tomato growers to understand the impact this can have.
Food waste is public- and private-sector issue, it requires changes by food producers, regulators, and consumers. But one key area stands out from all the above: labeling. Whether it is the lack of an inspection mark, failure to list an ingredient, lack of careful changeover, deficient supplier communication and controls, or inconsistent dating standards, labeling is a primary reason for both recalls and consumer food waste. And that, in harsh reality, puts the onus directly on the food industry and its regulators.
It is time to take a cold hard look at food waste from the perspective of the environment, our carbon footprint, and just managing the planet's resources responsibly. Currently I don’t think we have our priorities straight, and it is beyond time to start a dialogue on how to re-balance our food waste though a broader lens of risk management.
About The Acheson Group (TAG)
Led by Former FDA Associate Commissioner for Foods Dr. David Acheson, TAG is a food safety consulting group that provides guidance and expertise worldwide for companies throughout the food supply chain. With in-depth industry knowledge combined with real-world experience, TAG's team of food safety experts help companies more effectively mitigate risk, improve operational efficiencies, and ensure regulatory and standards compliance. www.AchesonGroup.com