Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Big Waste

I watched this show on food network called “The Big Waste” and it was about the huge amount of food that is wasted everyday in America, thrown out, discarded and otherwise going to waste. The primary point seemed to be to scold the consumer for being too spoiled for perfect produce and other foods. However, when looked at it from the perspective of an economist and libertarian all the waste seems perfectly natural given the conditions we are forced into as consumers. It is also apparent that waste is not a problem many concern themselves with in very many areas of the food chain.

A big part of the show was showing produce that is discarded because of bruising, misshapen product and discoloration. It was emphasized that there is nothing really wrong with this food. I agree there is nothing inedible about the food, however when I am at the store and see something for sale and it is all the exact same price, even though the quality varies, as a rational being I will chose the best I can get from the selection. Why would a person buy the bruised apples and pay the same price as the non-bruised apples? The fact is that as long as stores refuse to offer more discounted products, they will be throwing a lot of product away. If there was truly a concern for food waste, the answer is simply to incorporate a graded pricing system. Someone might not buy those carrot odds and ends for $2 a package, but for 50¢ they may look far more attractive.

Another part was to show all the food that went into the dumpster. In many places it is illegal to dumpster dive, and even when it is not illegal, many stores and restaurants lock the dumpsters up, either by locking the actual dumpster, or by placing them in locked fenced in areas. If the food is inaccessible it will spoil before it could possibly be saved. Also I recently heard from a co-worker who works in the produce department at a Super Wal-Mart that they are not allowed to take the food that is thrown-out home with them and they must throw it away. I am sure the policy is in place to try and prevent employee theft, but the practice also encourages more waste.

The next part is something Food Network did not directly talk about, but the show made it very clear, government regulations prevent a ton of edible food from being available. In the show they had a guy from the FDA sticking a thermometer in all of the food and he was ready to throw anything out that didn't pass this ridiculous test. The problem was that who knows what temperatures these foods had been at before he tested them. He talked a lot about bacteria and whatnot, but he never tested for anything like that. He said that a chunk of prosciutto was too warm to be safe. What a joke, in Europe you often see salted and smoked meats hanging in the open in stores, meats like prosciutto don't even need refrigerated, but he would not allow the food to be used. They also showed tons and tons of good vegetables that have been tossed out, vegetables that would make excellent food for pigs, but the 1980 swine protection act makes following the law and feeding pigs waste, even straight vegetables, very difficult to fully comply with the law to the point that most pig farms will simply not bother with it and will instead feed them a less nutritious diet of grain based feeds. There are also numerous other regulations that when followed result in a lot of good food going to waste.

Overall I think the show made a good point, that there is too much food wasted, but since the underlying causes of the waste were not addressed I am not sure how much good it is going to do. Instead, it becomes just one more instance of “yeah that seems bad, but not bad enough to change my personal behavior, or the law, or really anything.”

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