Animals we use and abuse for food we do not eat

We waste a lot of food in the United States. We grow food at the farm that the farmers sometimes cannot sell. We lose food during processing and transportation. We overstock food at retail stores and throw away whatever goes unsold. We leave food on our plates in restaurants and in our homes.

Sometimes, this thing that we call food is actually the remains of a sentient and cognitively agile animal who wanted to live but who we killed anyway to serve as our food. Most vegans and vegetarians would agree that no animal should have to suffer or die for our food. But, even most omnivores would agree that there is something deeply wretched about inflicting lifelong pain and misery and finally death on an animal for food we are not going to eat.

The following bar graph shows the percentage of the edible weight of animal products that enters the retail market as food but which is not eaten and is just thrown away into our landfills. There are two kinds of loss depicted in this graph: losses at the retail level and losses at the consumer level. Losses at the retail level arise due to overstocked inventory, prepared food that has to be thrown away if not purchased within a few hours (e.g., rotisserie chickens), expiration of “sell-by” dates, and half-a-dozen other reasons. Losses at the consumer level also occur for a variety of reasons including impulse buying, large portion sizes at restaurants, spoilage, expiration of “use-by” dates, and our habit of over-filling our plates at buffets and in our homes.

Percentage of the edible weight of animal products
that enters the retail market as food but is not eaten

The data used in the bar graph above are deduced from estimates used by the USDA in its loss-adjusted food availability reports. The estimates of the losses at the consumer-level come from a USDA-commissioned study using the Nielsen Company’s Homescan data on retail household purchases in the US and the NHANES survey of food consumption in the US. This data does not include losses before reaching the retail market such as at the farm or during processing, transportation or distribution.

Sources cited
  1. USDA, Economic Research Service. Loss-Adjusted Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System. (link, accessed March 27, 2013)
  2. USDA, Economic Research Service. Consumer-Level Food Loss Estimates and Their Use in the ERS Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data. January 2011. (link, accessed March 27, 2013)
  3. USDA, Economic Research Service. Exploratory Research on Estimation of Consumer-Level Food Loss Conversion Factors. July 2007. (link, accessed March 27, 2013)
  4. Counting Animals. How many animals does a vegetarian save?. February 2012. (link, accessed March 27, 2013)
  5. Jonathan Bloom. American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food. October 2010. (link, accessed March 27, 2013)
  6. Natural Resources Defense Council. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. August 2012. (link, accessed March 27, 2013)

The most significant factor in what gets wasted is whether or not it is perishable. The longer the shelf-life of a perishable food, the less likely it is to be wasted. Consumer-level waste depends also on whether the processing of a carcass happens at the consumer level with likely poorer efficiency. Fish and shellfish are more often trimmed, cut and processed at the consumer level in homes and restaurants; other meats are more likely to be processed before reaching the retail market. This is part of the reason that a larger percentage of fish and shellfish is wasted at the consumer level than of any other animal product.

There are several additional factors that play a role in what ends up eaten and what ends up in the landfill. Large portion sizes at restaurants mean that those animal products we are more likely to eat outside the home are also more likely to be wasted in larger quantities. The products that we more frequently use as ingredients in prepared foods—such as eggs and cheese—are also more likely to be thrown away without being eaten. Foods that are more often eaten by children are also more likely wasted in larger quantities. Picky consumer expectations about exactly how “done” a meat should be can lead to waste; for example, 2 to 5% of red meat is thrown away at some restaurants because it would be considered overcooked by the customer. Animals that are more often eaten during the holidays—such as turkeys—are left uneaten on our plates more often. Higher-income families waste more than lower-income families. It is a complex interplay of all of these and other factors that lead to the numbers in the bar graph above.

Overall, we waste 26.2% of all the meat that enters the US retail market. Based on the data here, this corresponds to over 25 billion fish, over 15 billion shellfish, over a billion chickens and over a hundred million other land animals that we kill to serve the US food supply.

Not only do we waste a larger percentage of fish and shellfish than of any other animal product, we also use a larger number of them than any other animal we use for food. Eliminating just half of the waste at just the consumer level could spare the lives of more than 15 billion fish and shellfish that are killed for the US food supply each year.

Even though we waste less of the chicken we buy than of any other animal product, we do use chickens for food in larger numbers than any other land animal. Eliminating just half of the waste at just the consumer level would spare the lives of over 500 million chickens used for their meat, over 35 million egg-laying hens, over 15 million pigs and over 3 million cows each year.

Now, it is worth examining the magnitude of these numbers more closely. Meat consumption in the US has been on a steady decline since 2006. Eliminating just half of the food waste at just the consumer level, a not too far-fetched a goal, would spare at least as many additional animals each year as are being spared by the reduced meat consumption since 2006!

The idea for the topic of this post was suggested to me by my friend, Kenny Torrella. He makes the argument that this issue offers a compelling motivation for the animal advocacy movement to join forces with the environmental groups working on reducing food waste. This is an easy cause with wide support; authors, environmental organizations and some of our government agencies have all advocated reducing food waste in the United States. Even the food industry, led by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Alliance, has formed the Food Waste Reduction Alliance to increase food donations and decrease waste.

Most environmental campaigns around food waste do not consider the animals in their arguments. However, our use of animals for food and the hidden cruelty behind our plates, I think, adds significantly to the rationale for reducing waste. Certainly, to the hen who spends almost all her life cramped in a battery cage with not enough room to even spread her wings, it does not matter at all whether her eggs get eaten or end up in our landfills; she just wants to be freed from her suffering. The screaming pig about to be slaughtered does not care if we will eat his meat or throw it away; he just wants to live. But, we have to care because cutting waste in our food supply chain offers us an opportunity to substantially reduce the number of hens who will endure lifelong misery and the number of pigs who have to scream in vain for their lives.

All animals who die for our food die for nothing. Because we can thrive just fine without eating them. So, the tragedy of animal suffering today is no more poignant because hundreds of millions of animals suffer and die only to end up in our landfills instead of on our plates; the tragedy is that this waste simply adds to the already large number of animals we use, abuse and kill for no good purpose.

Comments

Spike

I'm really shocked by the magnitude of the losses! But, it's so hard to get people to change their behavior. I wonder what can be done to reduce some of this food waste (in addition to proselytizing for veganism)?

Harish

Spike, you are absolutely right that it can be hard to change people's behavior.

Reducing food waste requires increasing awareness and changing ossified behavioral patterns. Most people do not change their habits easily but people do respond quite predictably to discreet cues that nudge their behavior one way or another. Luckily, food waste is as much an institutional problem as a problem of individual behavior. Food service companies can adopt trayless dining and smaller plates and bowls to influence behavior and reduce waste. Restaurants can offer smaller portion sizes at the same price with optional refills; or they can offer half-order portions at a reduced price and not charge plate sharing fees. Food manufacturers can use the sell by and use by dates to indicate safety instead of just peak quality so that items with these labels are less likely to expire before use. Grocery stores can institute procedural protocols with local agencies to routinely donate unsold food instead of throwing it away into the trash. The artificially low price of meat in the US diminishes the appeal of frugality in our purchases; Congress can eliminate agricultural subsidies which bury and hide in our taxes the real cost of meat.

All of these and other ideas have been advocated by various groups and it seems some are finding their way into wider institutional adoption. For example, my own cafeteria at my workplace no longer uses trays.

Paul

Very insightful -- and sobering -- post, Harish. Thanks for shining light on this.

Matt

Thanks for this, Harish. Great, insightful stuff as usual. I once had to be at Disney , and told me wife we could save billions of animals if people ate all the animals they bought.
:-(
Obviously, it is easier to get both Bill Clinton and Bill Gates on our side than to put even the slightest dent in agricultural subsidies.

Harish

Thanks, Paul and Matt!

Matt, yes, it seems much harder to get Congress to drop ag subsidies than to persuade a few of the most influential people. But, I am still hopeful that the recent focus on reducing spending may land at least a few small dents in the ag subsidies.

Guy Grayson

Harish, you are great mind at work.
I've a suggestion or two for future topics.
1: Compare the average amount of time each animal suffered before being eaten [their life-span], to the average meal times added together of the average person eating them at each meal. The months of TORTURE to minutes of taste enjoyment.
Thanks man,

Guy Grayson
Project Innovator

Jack

Another great post, Harish. I guess the sequester didn't put animal ag on the chopping block? That's too bad. If there's one thing Americans hate more than paying taxes, it's expensive meat. :(

Bea Elliott

Thank you for your efforts and work in exposing this sad, sad information. The waste (beyond the theft of life) in the making of meat, dairy and eggs has long been a sore point with me. After seeing these stats it's even more so. Certainly this should encourage every animal consumer to proceed with mindful thrift.

Brian

This is my fav blog and the only one I take the time to regularly read. I'm so glad you told me about this H.

Geoff

Harish, your website is excellent.

Jaya Bhumitra

Brilliant. I've shared with the staff.

Ben

Really eye-opening post Harish!

Mary

Very useful information, Harish. Thank you for such worthwhile work and making it available to us. Thank you especially for bringing attention to the plight of fish.

Monica Mestas

Thank you for quantifying the food waste in terms of lives wasted -- for nothing. Even if they don't care about the animal, they are wasting their $$. Like the basket of "wings" at a sports bar, and half the wings go uneaten and into the trash. I often make this argument to people, that even if they continue to eat meat but would just not waste it, realizing it was a living being, that act alone would save animals' lives. Now I have more punch to my argument. And glad to hear that there is growing support for this "no-brainer" concept.

peace

Reading this post reminded me of my aunt and uncle's large family. They would buy Happy Meals for all of their children very frequently, and always there would be one or more kids who would take a few bites and throw it down, saying, "Mommy, I don't want this!" My Aunt would always shrug and say "Well, don't eat it." I'd like to see the numbers of the huge amount of food wasted in that household alone.

Yoni

Interesting, informative article. I have one question. You mention that meat consumption has been on a decline since 2006. Is that domestically or worldwide? Do you have a source I could see for that claim? I've just heard claims to the contrary and want to get the facts straight. Sharing the article on FB now, good information for people to know.

Harish

Yoni, click here to see the data on the decline in the US. Worldwide, however, consumption is increasing.

Pranav

Great article, Harish. Keep it up. I have an article I think it would be great for you write: trends in commercials for meat, dairy, and egg (and honey, while we're at it) foods, compared to commercials for vegan/vegetarian foods. Perhaps seeing whether frequency of TV/print/radio etc. commercials for animal foods has increased, decreased, or remained the same over the last decade or so, compared to commercials for vegan/vegetarian foods.

Jon

Yet another insightful and informative post, Harish.

Giannina

I really hate to believe or know that this is happenning. I've been trying really hard to stop meat consumption & i wont give up until i've completely done it! I love animals & they were not put here on earth for our convenience or use!

DeeBOB

I love animals: They taste delicious.

Brittany

As a dumpster diver- I think about this all the time. I think animal rights orgs should also try to remind those who are working against food waste just how much food is wasted in bringing animals to our plates. I think we must also remember that this capitalist system is what is allowing all of this food waste & the "animal agriculture industry" which we are fighting against.

Paul Hansen

Ditto to the above praise—great research on a topic I’ve thought about lately. The “hidden” waste in food marketing and consumption has been almost totally ignored in veg-carn debates. And the data severely undermine the pro-meat argument that eating animals is more “efficient” (with respect to either energy use or land use) than crop agriculture.

Lyria

They should do an article on animal abuse! Its is absolutely aweful.

The Animal Defenders

Personally, I believe that if anyone puts food on their plate, especially meat - beef, chicken, fish - then that food MUST be eaten. After all an animal died to make it possible for a human to eat the meat. NOT to eat it and waste it is in my viewpoint a MORTAL, MORAL SIN. If you are full and can't eat it, then at least save it and eat it later - but do NOT toss it out. That is just selfish beyond words and people like that disgust me!

Albany

This is honestly the saddest thing I have ever read about. I am about to send a letter to the mayor or something to stop this terrible abuse!!!! );

Shannon Kimball

It’s empowering to see something empirical to confirm what we know so intuitively, but I suppose you already know that Harish! The last paragraph was most powerful of all. Thank you!

tino

hi again harish,

this is so important. I'm not sure if anyone else has mentioned this, but another staggering (and tragic) figure is the number of animals who die on-farm or in transport before being turned into a 'product' that reaches any store or kitchen plate.

For example, from OMAFRA's site I found that there is an average 12% mortality rate for piglets under 3 weeks(!) of age.

For sows who are bred so that their piglets can be taken, "grown" and killed for meat, there is a 7% mortality rate (and a 35% "cull" rate, but some of those animals' bodies make it into food).

I wasn't able to find statistics on mortality in "grower/finisher" pigs (from 3 weeks of age to ~6 months, who will then be slaughtered for 'meat') but I know deaths at this age also happen.

It's truly staggering to think about the magnitude of all this suffering that ultimately was for nothing.

Harish

Thanks, tino! I was only considering already-slaughtered and sold animal products. You are right that the mortality rate of animals in factory farms before they reach slaughter can be considered another kind of "waste". I have considered this somewhat in the case of chickens here: http://www.countinganimals.com/is-vegan-outreach-right-about-how-many-animals-suffer-to-death/

Graham

Let's not forget that these animals are fed on grain and to produce that grain millions of innocent land creatures like mice and rats have been killed. Unfortunately that is also true of the grain that vegetarians and vegans eat so I think you should now realise that your diet is less animal-friendly than you have been told it was.

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