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November 5, 2015

Food Policy: Cutting Waste, Broadening Systems

Articles highlight tackling food waste and expanding approaches to food policy

In two separate articles, researchers detail strategies aimed at cutting food waste and broadening approaches to food policy, moves that the researchers say would ultimately improve public health and food security.

The two articles appear in the November issue of Health Affairs, its first ever devoted to food and health.

Previous studies indicate that Americans waste as much as 40 per cent, or 133 billion pounds, of the food that is produced or purchased. Globally, the figure is about 30 per cent of the food supply. This past fall, the United States and United Nations pledged to reduce by half the amount of food wasted in the U.S and abroad by 2030. If this goal is met, it’s likely that future food production would not have to be increased as much to address hunger and meet the demands of a growing global population. Today, one in nine people around the world lack sufficient food, while 14 percent of Americans experience food insecurity, living without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

“In a world of limited resources and growing populations, it’s past time to stop dumping our good food in the landfill,” says Roni Neff, PhD, lead author of the article on food waste, director of the Food System Sustainability & Public Health Program at the Center for a Livable Future and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Cutting food waste in half is doable, and public health is part of the solution.”

To curtail food waste in higher income countries, measures like clarifying food date labels could go a long way. Consumers are often confused by “use by,” “best by” and “sell by” dates on food packaging and thus toss out perfectly good food. Improving date labeling policy can also improve food safety. In addition, creating markets for so-called “ugly” produce – bruised peaches, nicked potatoes – could minimize food waste while increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.

In lower- and middle-income countries, the priority is to improve infrastructure so food doesn’t begin to spoil while being shipped from farms to its final destinations.

The authors note that while most food waste reduction approaches benefit the public’s health, some strategies can be damaging. Recovering food that would otherwise be wasted is generally a win-win for food security and waste prevention. But donated food should meet recipient needs, not only those of donors to get rid of it; food banks are increasingly working to seek out healthier donations. 

In a second article, researchers recommend taking a broader “systems” approach to food policy in order to tackle public health issues as far-ranging as climate change and antibiotic use in food animal production.

“Working with those in other fields gives us tools to address some of the most critical public health threats we face,” says Neff, who is also lead author of the food systems article. “Collaboration is not optional anymore.”

The authors describe three examples of a food systems approach to food policy: farm-to-school programs, incorporating sustainability into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and antibiotic use in food animal production.

Farm-to-school programs bring fresh, healthy food to children, while building their interest in eating fruits and vegetables and also benefiting local farmers. The growth of these programs demonstrates the potential influence that health and agricultural policy leaders can have when they advocate around their shared interests.

Earlier this year, the USDA and HHS rejected recommendations to make food’s environmental impact part of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The public debate over how food habits affect the planet’s health illustrates ways in which public health voices can shift understanding of federal food policy, and perhaps build momentum toward future change.

In 2013 the FDA issued voluntary guidelines on antibiotic use in food animal production. The guidelines asked drug companies to voluntarily withdraw approvals to use antibiotics in food animals for “growth promotion,” while keeping approvals to use these drugs for “disease prevention.” From a public health perspective, this is problematic. In both cases, antibiotics are fed to animals at low doses, making bacteria resistant to drugs used to treat human infections. The authors describe the experience from Denmark and the Netherlands, suggesting that “coordinated action across sectors can be successful in reducing antibiotic use in animal agriculture, while imposing little or no negative impact on consumers, producers, or the meat industries.”

Reducing Food Losses And Waste While Improving The Public's Health” was written by Roni Neff, Rebecca Kanter and Stefanie Vandevijvere.

A Food Systems Approach to Healthy Food and Agriculture Policy” was written by Roni Neff, Kathleen Merrigan and David Wallinga.

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Media contact for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future: Natalie Wood-Wright at 410-502-7578 or nwoodwr1@jhu.edu

Media contact for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Barbara Benham at 410-614-6029 or bbenham1@jhu.edu.