Americans Are Wasting Nearly Half of the Most Expensive Grocery Item They Buy
The United States is one of the largest seafood markets in the world, buying 4.7 billion pounds in 2011—second only to China. Not all of that fish, however, is consumed: According to a study conducted by the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, nearly half—2.3 billion pounds—ends up in the garbage.
That we waste a huge amount of what we produce and buy and eat isn’t a revelation; public awareness of food waste has been rising, and in September, for the first time, the government announced goals for reducing the amount that is trashed. Still, when it comes to seafood, not only is the food more expensive relative to other items, but it can come at a high ecological cost too. While concerns over bycatch have been around for years, the authors of the paper, which will be published in the November issue of Global Environmental Change, found that the bulk of the loss comes at the consumer end of the food chain. Some 330 million pounds are wasted on the distribution and retail side of things, 573 million pounds owing to bycatch (when a fish of the wrong species is caught and is thrown back to sea), and consumers trash a full 1.3 billion pounds.
According to the study, the lost seafood represents the protein needs of 10 million men or 12 million women and enough fish to narrow the gap between the amount of seafood that the average American consumes and the amount recommended by the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines by 36 percent.
Half of the world’s seafood comes from aquaculture—a figure that many have argued will need to increase to meet demand without further damaging fisheries around the globe. But the authors of the study see reducing waste as a way to increase consumption without further burdening wild stocks or growing aquaculture to meet demand in an unsustainable manner.
“A portion of the loss of seafood is unavoidable, especially because seafood can spoil quickly compared to other foods, but continuing to treat our aquatic resources as though they are limitless is unsustainable and detrimental to the environment and public health,” the authors wrote in the conclusion of the study.
One simple way for consumers to waste less involves overcoming one of the most persistent truisms of seafood: Fresh is the best. Yet, not only does buying frozen—the state that much of the “fresh” fish you might buy at the grocery store was in before being defrosted for display—make it easier to avoid spoilage, but the freezer aisle is often the best place to find eco-friendly seafood options.