Fast Facts

Millions of Americans are unsure about where their next meal will come from. Meanwhile, about 40% of the U.S. food supply goes uneaten. This issue requires action across the food supply chain and collaboration among federal and state agencies, businesses, communities, and more.

Federal agencies announced an interagency plan to cut food waste in half by 2030. But the plan doesn't indicate agreement on agency roles and responsibilities, and it doesn't address how they will evaluate and report on results—key practices for effective collaboration.

We recommended that federal agencies put key practices into their plan to reduce food waste.

Historic World War I era USDA poster aimed at reducing food waste.

Historic USDA poster discussing the importance of combating food waste.

Historic USDA poster discussing the importance of combating food waste.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

GAO identified three key areas in which challenges exist to reducing food loss and waste (FLW) in the United States: (1) limited data and information about FLW; (2) a lack of awareness and education about FLW; and (3) limited infrastructure and capacity. For example, the causes of FLW vary across the stages of the food supply chain (see figure), but the share of total FLW due to each of these causes is currently unknown, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report. GAO identified these challenges through interviews with selected stakeholders.

Food Supply-Chain Stages and Examples of Causes of Food Loss and Waste

Food Supply-Chain Stages and Examples of Causes of Food Loss and Waste

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and USDA have taken initial actions to address key challenges to reducing FLW in the United States since announcing a national FLW reduction goal in 2015. These actions include conducting a study to identify gaps in information about farm-level FLW and building public awareness about ways to reduce FLW.

EPA, USDA, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have taken some actions to plan and organize their efforts toward achieving the national FLW reduction goal. For example, EPA developed an internal plan that established action areas, goals, and activities for reducing FLW, and USDA designated an individual to guide USDA's FLW efforts. In October 2018, EPA, USDA, and FDA signed an interagency agreement committing them to developing a strategic plan to improve their collaboration and coordination in reducing FLW. In April 2019, the agencies announced an interagency strategic plan with prioritized action areas to reduce FLW, but this strategic plan does not address how it will incorporate key practices for interagency collaboration that GAO identified, including (1) agreeing on roles and responsibilities; (2) developing mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report on results; (3) clearly defining short- and long-term outcomes; (4) identifying how leadership commitment will be sustained; and (5) ensuring that the relevant stakeholders have been included in the collaborative effort. By incorporating such practices as they implement their interagency strategic plan, EPA, USDA, and FDA would have better assurance that they were effectively collaborating toward achieving the national FLW reduction goal.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Natural Resources Defense Council reported that in the United States up to 40 percent of the food supply goes uneaten. FLW has significant economic, environmental, and social effects on various stakeholders, including businesses and consumers. In 2015, EPA and USDA announced a national goal to reduce FLW in the United States by half by 2030. In 2018, FDA joined EPA and USDA in these efforts.

GAO was asked to examine efforts by federal agencies to reduce FLW. This report (1) describes nonfederal stakeholder views on key challenges to reducing FLW in the United States, (2) describes actions EPA and USDA have taken to address key challenges to reducing FLW in the United States, and (3) examines federal planning efforts toward achieving the national FLW reduction goal. GAO reviewed federal reports on FLW; analyzed agency documents; interviewed officials from EPA, FDA, USDA, and states and representatives of nonfederal stakeholders, such as academic institutions, industry, international organizations, nonprofit organizations, and a tribal organization, based on their demonstrated expertise on FLW; and attended conferences on FLW.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations in this report. GAO is recommending that EPA, FDA, and USDA incorporate leading collaboration practices as they implement their interagency strategic plan to reduce FLW.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency The Administrator of EPA should work with the Commissioner of FDA and Secretary of Agriculture to incorporate leading collaboration practices as they implement their interagency FLW reduction strategic plan, to include (1) agreeing on roles and responsibilities; (2) developing mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report on results; (3)clearly defining short- and long-term outcomes; (4) identifying how leadership commitment will be sustained; and (5) ensuring that the relevant stakeholders have been included in the collaborative effort.(Recommendation 1)
Open
The agency agreed with this recommendation and has taken some steps to implement it, though some steps remain. In January 2021, EPA stated that it shared its joint and individual agency accomplishments to date in each of the six priority areas of the federal interagency strategy to reduce food loss and waste on its webpage: https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/winning-reducing-food-waste-federal-interagency-strategy. EPA said it will continue to share its accomplishments as the agencies work together and will update this webpage to reflect them. In addition, EPA said it continues to coordinate with federal partners and other stakeholders through: monthly high-level check-in calls for senior EPA, USDA and FDA officials (for which the meeting chair rotates among the 3 agencies); twice a month (or as needed) EPA, USDA and FDA staff workgroup meetings, led by the USDA food loss and waste liaison, to explore potential activities aligned with the six priority areas in the federal interagency strategy to reduce food loss and waste; and participation in quarterly meetings with relevant stakeholders such as its Memorandum of Understanding partners--ReFED and the Food Waste Reduction Alliance--and Further with Food partners to coordinate efforts and learn of opportunities to collaborate on reducing food loss and waste. EPA also appointed 33 new members to the Farm, Ranch, and Rural Communities Federal Advisory Committee, established a charge for the group which includes addressing food loss and wastes, and held their first meeting in September 2020. However, EPA has not provided information about specific agency roles and responsibilities, mechanisms to evaluate progress and report on results, or clearly defined short- and long-term outcomes. We are following up with the agency. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Food and Drug Administration The Commissioner of FDA should work with the Administrator of EPA and Secretary of Agriculture to incorporate leading collaboration practices as they implement their interagency FLW reduction strategic plan, to include (1) agreeing on roles and responsibilities; (2) developing mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report on results; (3)clearly defining short- and long-term outcomes; (4) identifying how leadership commitment will be sustained; and (5) ensuring that the relevant stakeholders have been included in the collaborative effort. (Recommendation 2)
Open
The agency agreed with this recommendation. In July 2021, FDA said that it has continued to work with EPA and USDA to make progress on the six priority areas identified in a FY2019-2020 Federal Interagency Strategy including enhancing interagency coordination, increasing consumer education and outreach, improving guidance on food loss and waste measure, clarifying date labeling, collaborating with industry, and encouraging food waste reduction at federal facilities. FDA said that to formalize the coordination envisioned in the joint interagency formal agreement, the three agencies officially formed the Federal Interagency Food Loss and Waste Working Group (FIFLAW) in April 2020, comprised of core EPA, FDA, and USDA food loss and waste (FLW) staff to work on federal interagency efforts around FLW activities. The FIFLAW working group facilitated the renewal of the joint interagency formal agreement between EPA, FDA, and USDA in December 2020, reaffirming agency roles and responsibilities and the shared commitment to improve coordination and communication efforts to better educate on the impacts and importance of food loss and waste efforts. The FIFLAW working group continues to coordinate activities to meet the goals and outcomes categorized into six priority areas outlined in the Federal Interagency Strategy. FDA said that in an effort to share progress made on the defined activities within the six priority areas, the agencies periodically post an ongoing inventory of activities. To further interagency coordination, the FDA participates in the following regular engagements: monthly high-level check-in calls for senior EPA, USDA, and FDA officials (for which the meeting chair rotates among the three agencies); twice a month (or as needed) EPA, USDA and FDA staff workgroup meetings, led by the USDA food loss and waste liaison, to explore potential activities aligned with the six priority areas in the federal interagency strategy to reduce food loss and waste; participation in quarterly meetings with relevant stakeholders such as its Memorandum of Understanding partners--ReFED, Inc. and the Food Waste Reduction Alliance--to coordinate efforts and learn of opportunities to collaborate on reducing food loss and waste; participation in quarterly meetings of the AFDO Food Recovery Committee. FDA said that to further nonfederal stakeholder engagement, the three agencies established agreements with ReFED, Inc. and the Food Waste Reduction Alliance to leverage the strength of their stakeholder networks. FDA said that the agencies are in the process of renewing the agreement with ReFED, Inc. to continue the partnership. However, FDA did not provide information about specific efforts to evaluate progress and report on results. In addition, FDA has not provided specific information about short- and long-term outcomes. We are following up with the agency. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should work with Administrator of EPA and Commissioner of FDA to incorporate leading collaboration practices as they implement their interagency FLW reduction strategic plan, to include (1) agreeing on roles and responsibilities; (2) developing mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report on results; (3)clearly defining short- and long-term outcomes; (4) identifying how leadership commitment will be sustained; and (5) ensuring that the relevant stakeholders have been included in the collaborative effort. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The agency agreed with this recommendation. As of July 2021, USDA established monthly interagency meetings with EPA and FDA and helped establish the Federal Interagency Food Loss and Waste Working Group. However, USDA has not provided any information that identifies agreements about specific agency roles and responsibilities. USDA has reported its actions conducted from April 2019-April 2020 on its public website, but USDA has not provided support to demonstrate that it has taken steps to evaluate progress and report on results. USDA has not identified any specific short-term or long-term outcomes. In December 2020, USDA signed a renewed formal interagency agreement on the Winning on Reducing Food Waste, which demonstrates how leadership commitment will be sustained. In October 2019, USDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Food Waste Reduction Alliance. As a result, USDA has demonstrated that is has included relevant stakeholders in the collaborative effort. We are following up with the agency. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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