Food Industry Prevents Greenhouse Gases
Food safety overhaul could inadvertently send much of the reusable food back to landfills.
Expired marshmallows, broken crackers, stale donuts, even orange peels are among the billions of pounds of would-be waste that help feed livestock every year.
By regularly diverting its waste in this way, the food industry prevents millions of tons of greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere, but an obscure proposal under a 2011 food safety overhaul could inadvertently send much of the reusable food back to landfills.
Food manufacturers send the vast majority of their waste to be turned into animal feed, which many view as a significant achievement considering that more than 30 percent of all food in the United States is thrown away. But the Food and Drug Administration has proposed placing new sanitation and record-keeping requirements on feed production that could increase compliance costs and paperwork — mandates that many in the industry and on Capitol Hill warn could make it too expensive for businesses to continue recycling.
“World food needs are going to increase dramatically,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), ranking member of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said at a recent hearing on the FDA’s budget.
Blunt urged FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to revise the proposed animal feed rule, which was required under the Food Safety Modernization Act, to give more consideration to food byproducts used in feed.
“Normally, we’d think about how we need to produce more food, but [we also need to] more effectively use the food and food products we have,” Blunt said, adding, “I think this is a big issue.”
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 top food companies and supports the food safety overhaul broadly, is raising alarm about the feed proposal. The group has said the FDA’s approach would be costly, bad for the environment and provide little or no food safety benefit.
“Of course, our members do not want to use landfills except as a last resort, but they may have no other option if compliance costs are too high,” the group said in 88-pages of comments on the proposed regulation. Tonnage sent to landfills “could drastically increase,” the group warned.
Food manufacturers kept about 44 billion pounds of food waste out of landfills in 2011, including such discards as French fry potato peels and granola bar trimmings, according to data compiled by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, a collaboration between GMA, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association.
In its own economic analysis, GMA has estimated that nearly 70 percent of the waste stream from food manufacturers goes into animal feed and only 5 percent is dumped in landfills. The bulk of the remaining waste is composted or applied to land.
Those numbers would change dramatically if the FDA proposal becomes law, the group said. The proposed regulation would require manufacturers to create food safety plans for all of the byproducts going into feed, a potentially costly mandate that would likely prompt companies to divert as little as 22 percent of their food waste to feed and almost 28 percent to landfills in order to save money and avoid the hassle, GMA estimated.
Overall, the rule would cost food manufacturers about $444 million a year, GMA said, which is more than three times what the FDA estimated for the human, livestock and pet food industries combined. That includes $100 million in lost revenue from animal feed buyers and $344 million in increased landfill and compost fees.
In environmental terms, carbon dioxide emissions would increase by 4.7 million metric tons annually — the equivalent of adding about a million passenger cars to the roads, the group said.
“It is bad public policy for FDA to put companies in the situation of having to decide whether to incur significant expenditures for compliance, with minimal, if any, augmentation to the health of humans or animals, or to engage in a practice that it known to be environmentally unsustainable,” GMA said in its comments on the rule.
The industry group has asked the FDA to overhaul its proposal and cost-benefit analysis and conduct an environmental impact assessment, which the agency has argued isn’t necessary. The FDA’s analysis found that the proposal would provide “potential improvements” to public health by reducing contamination in animal feed and the animal products that people consume, but the agency did not provide figures and said it is “unable to quantify the benefits of the proposed rule.”
David Plunkett, a senior attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he believes it’s unlikely companies will divert their food to landfills and that such concerns are overblown.
“Trade associations have the job of constructing the ‘worst case scenario’ to minimize the impact of regulations, but the reality is often very different,” Plunkett said. “Companies are accustomed to [hazard control] plans for food safety, and it is unlikely that pet food and animal feed are going to disappear into landfills simply because of this rule’s minimal requirement to practice safety and keep good records.”
Responding to pushback on several of its food safety proposals, the FDA announced in March that it plans to issue “revised language” for the feed rule, and top officials have said that they’re committed to finding a practical solution to food waste concerns.
At the recent Senate appropriations hearing, Commissioner Hamburg told Sen. Blunt that she has brought the waste issue to the attention of her team.
“We want to support sustainable agriculture practices,” Hamburg said. “It makes enormous sense. We do believe this can be addressed in a practical, sensible way.”
Meanwhile, the EPA has developed a “food recovery hierarchy” to guide food waste policy. Its top priority, aside from reducing waste, is to feed hungry people and, after that, to feed animals.
ConAgra Foods, which owns such popular brands as Chef Boyardee and Reddi-wip, used the EPA recommendations to develop its waste-reduction strategy, Gail Tavill, the company’s vice president for sustainable development.
“Our strategy was really to move up that value hierarchy,” Tavill said. “Feeding animals, for us, is a huge part of our strategy.”
Tavill pointed to shelf-stable pudding as a key example. Typically, the company will produce some initial batches of pudding cups to ensure the process is sterile before making cups to ship to consumers.
“For many years, those finished cups were going into the landfill,” Tavill said. But then ConAgra Foods started working with another company that could separate the pudding from the cups to use in poultry feed and recover energy from the plastic. Cost was not a significant factor in pursuing this relationship, she said. While it did deliver a small savings, the real driver was working toward keeping valuable materials out of landfills. Today, ConAgra Foods diverts about 87 percent of its total food waste stream to animal feed, she said.
Tavill expressed concern that FDA’s proposal will prompt companies to discontinue their recycling efforts. Compliance will be especially difficult for manufacturers who handle multiple products or those with a lot of ingredients, such as soup and pot pies, she said.
“[The regulations] are pretty prescriptive,” Tavill said. “What is the problem that the rule is trying to solve? Where’s the risk that they’re trying to solve? … Is the effort to comply with the requirements equal to the risk?”
Dozens of other companies also are expected to weigh in on the proposed feed rule. Food giant Cargill told POLITICO that it supports the food safety law, but “believes that the regulation should have some flexibility due to the broad nature of the animal food, feed and ingredient space.”
Despite the problem that food waste presents, recycling hasn’t attracted as much high-profile attention in the United States as it has in other countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, celebrities advocate feeding discarded food to pigs under a campaign dubbed “The Pig Idea.”
Taking a cue from across the pond, the Agriculture Department and EPA launched the less-cleverly titled U.S. Food Waste Challenge this past summer to raise awareness of the need for more recycling.
“The food industry in general is starting to pay more attention to the waste stream and find ways to capture value from what they previously threw away,” said Jonathan Bloom, author of the food-waste treatise “American Wasteland.” “As the cost savings become clear, more and more companies are looking at it,” he said.
Consumer awareness of the issue is also growing, he said.
“People are becoming increasingly interested in where their food comes from, and a natural offshoot of that is to ask, ‘Where does it go when we’re done with it or when we don’t use it?’”
Article published by HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH | Politico http://politi.co/1kw2ArW