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How to Cut Food Waste and Maintain Food Safety

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Food Loss and Waste

Food safety is a major concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually – the equivalent of sickening 1 in 6 Americans each year. And each year these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

Food waste is also a major concern. Wasted food is a huge challenge to our natural resources, our environment, and our pocketbooks.

Our resources? Each year getting food to U.S. tables requires:

  • 80 percent of our freshwater,
  • 10 percent of our available energy, and,
  • Half of our land.

The environment? Organic waste, mostly food, is the second biggest component of landfills, and landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions. Methane is a major factor in global warming because it is so effective at absorbing the sun’s heat, which warms the atmosphere.

And, finally, our pocketbooks:
Between 30 and 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten – as much as 20 pounds of food per person per month. That means Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion in food each year.

How Food Waste and Food Safety Are Connected

The major sources of food waste in the United States are the food industry and consumers. Within the food industry, waste occurs at every step — on the farm and with packers, processors, distributors, and retailers. Some of it is the result of economic forces, some of management problems, and some is caused simply by dumping products that are less than perfect in appearance.

Food Product Dating and Food Waste

Food waste by consumers may result from a misunderstanding of what the phrases on product date labels mean, along with uncertainty about storage of perishable foods. Confusion over date labeling accounts for an estimated 20 percent of consumer food waste.

What are Food Product Dates?

Many consumers misunderstand the purpose and meaning of the date labels that often appear on packaged foods. Confusion over date labeling accounts for an estimated 20 percent of consumer food waste.

Except for infant formula, manufacturers are not required by Federal law or regulation to place quality-based date labels on packaged food.

There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating (calendar dates) in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used for product dating.

FDA supports efforts by the food industry to make “Best if Used By” the standard phrase to indicate the date when a product will be at its best flavor and quality. Consumers should examine foods for signs of spoilage that are past their “Best if used by” date. If the products have changed noticeably in color, consistency or texture, consumers may want to avoid eating them. If you have questions or concerns about the quality, safety and labeling of the packaged foods you buy, you are encouraged to reach out to the company that produced the product. Many packaged foods provide the company’s contact information on the package.

Manufacturers apply date labels at their own discretion and for a variety of reasons. The most common is to inform consumers and retailers of the date to which they can expect the food to retain its desired quality and flavor.

Industry is moving toward more uniform practices for date labeling of packaged foods. But, for now, consumers may see different phrases used for product dating, such as Sell By, Best By, Expires on, etc.

How to Best to Store Perishables and How Long They Will Keep Safely

The FoodKeeper, developed cooperatively by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute, is a complete guide to how long virtually every food available in the United States will keep in the pantry, in the refrigerator, and in the freezer. The Fresh Fruits section, for example, covers apples (3 weeks in the pantry, 4 – 6 weeks in the fridge, and — only if cooked — 8 months in the freezer) to pomegranates (2 – 5 days pantry, 1 – 3 months fridge, and 10 – 12 months freezer). The Meat, Poultry and Seafood sections are equally complete, and include smoked as well fresh products.

Access the FoodKeeper or download it as a mobile application (Android Devices | Apple Devices)

The Refrigerator & Freezer Storage Chart includes safe storage times for many widely-used foods.

More Ways to Avoid Wasting Food

  • Be aware of how much food you throw away.
  • Don’t buy more food than can be used before it spoils.
  • Plan meals and use shopping lists. Think about what you are buying and when it will be eaten. Check the fridge and pantry to avoid buying what you already have.
  • Avoid impulse and bulk purchases, especially produce and dairy that have a limited shelf life. Promotions encouraging purchases of unusual or bulk products often result in consumers buying foods outside their typical needs or family preferences, and portions — potentially large portions — of these foods may end up in the trash.
  • When eating out, become a more mindful eater. If you’re not terribly hungry request smaller portions. Bring your leftovers home and refrigerate or freeze them within two hours, and check the Food Keeper to see how long they’ll be safe to eat.
  • Check the temperature setting of your fridge. Use a refrigerator thermometer to be sure the temperature is at 40° F or below to keep foods safe. The temperature of your freezer should be 0° F or below.
  • Avoid "overpacking:" Cold air must circulate around refrigerated foods to keep them properly chilled.
  • Wipe up spills immediately: It not only reduces the growth of Listeria bacteria (which can grow at refrigerator temperatures), cleaning up spills — especially drips from thawing meats — will help prevent "cross-contamination," where bacteria from one food spread to another.
  • Keep it covered: Store refrigerated foods in covered containers or sealed storage bags, and check leftovers daily for spoilage.
  • Refrigerate peeled or cut veggies for freshness and to keep them from going bad.
  • Use your freezer! Freezing is a great way to store most foods to keep them from going bad until you are ready to eat them. The FoodKeeper has information on how long most common foods can be stored in the freezer.
  • Check your fridge often to keep track of what you have and what needs to be used. Eat or freeze items before you need to throw them away.
  • To keep foods safe when entertaining, remember the 2-Hour Rule: don’t leave perishable foods out at room temperature for more than two hours, unless you're keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold. If you’re eating outdoors and the temperature is above 90° F, perishable foods shouldn’t be left out for more than one hour.
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