The Food Waste Problem

Food waste is an issue that affects every area of the food system. Supply chains, restaurants, consumers, and really anywhere food travels has some amount of waste. And according to the FAO, we waste 1.3 billion tons of food per year. Sadly, it is almost inevitable that some food will be wasted or a surplus will be produced. However, it is best to know what to do with that extra food to provide the largest socioeconomic benefits.

That’s why the Food Recovery Hierarchy was created.

What is the Food Recovery Hierarchy?

The EPA created the Food Recovery Hierarchy to help those in the food system prioritize different methods for managing surplus food. Items at the top are higher priority and have the largest socioeconomic benefit, while the items at the bottom are not preferable.

UN food recovery hierarchy

Where Should I Focus My Food Recovery Solutions?

It’s best practice to start at the top of the pyramid and make every effort in one section before moving to the next. For example, you should always find how to reduce surplus food generated at the source first. The order is as follows:

  1. Source Reduction
  2. Feed Hungry People
  3. Feed Animals
  4. Industrial Uses
  5. Composting
  6. Landfill/Incineration

Each of these sections is explained below.

1. Source Reduction


The best way to recover food is to not have surplus food in the first place. Just think about how much money and effort is put into food that makes it all the way through the supply chain and then is just thrown away because there is not a demand for it or it is not high enough quality for a consumer.

There are numerous ways to reduce food waste at the source. Having more accurate inventory management and demand planning are two key ways this is accomplished.

2. Feed Hungry People

handing out oranges

The next best thing to do is to feed hungry people. Million of people are food insecure and don’t know when their next meal will be. Do not send dumpsters full of food to the landfill or to be converted to energy when these people are in need. It has never been easier to donate to a non-profit, and you can rest assured knowing that there are good samaritan laws in place to legally protect your organization from liabilities.

You should search on Google for the best non-profits near you to donate to. There are also programs, such as MealConnect, that make this easy. 

3. Feed Animals

cow chewing

Feeding animals is the next highest on the list. Why? Well for starters, they can eat food that has gone past human consumption ability. Also, feeding animals is a huge hit to the environment. Cows can eat up to 120 pounds of wet feed a day alone! Stomachs of cows and other livestock are much more durable than those in humans and they are able to process rotten produce much better than us.

So when donating to people is out of the question, the millions of farm animals around the world will gladly accept your food. 

4. Industrial Uses

industrial plant

Industrial use is something that has garnered a lot of interest lately and has a nice appeal to it. Using crops that would be trash and converting it to energy or fuel? Sounds like a great concept. While technology is improving, you may be curious as to why it is still below feeding humans and animals in the food recovery hierarchy. This is because all of the food going into these processes, such as anaerobic digestion, have costs for gallons of water, fertilizer, labor, transportation, sorting, and processing already included. There are much cheaper ways of generating energy than this.

If you have gotten past the point where donating to humans is an option and donating to animals for feed is out of the question, this is certainly the next best option. But again, more emphasis should be placed on reducing the amount of food waste in the first place so you don’t have to make the decision this far down. Food rotting in a landfill and in an anaerobic digestion facility are not too far apart. 

5. Composting


Composting and adding to the landfill are similar to anaerobic digestion and energy recovery in that the food is still rotting away and emitting greenhouse gases. However, it is still more ideal than sending food off to a landfill because the nutrients can be repurposed for growing more crops. It can be done almost anywhere and is great for food scraps.

6. Landfill/Incineration

wasted food

Adding food to the landfill is the worst-case scenario. Leaving food to rot and letting go of all of the energy that was put into making it is not a good thing. The methane that is produced is at least 20x more potent in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and there is no benefit to any living thing to having it sit in a landfill.  


Hopefully, this explanation of the food recovery hierarchy helps you make more informed decisions about how to manage your food waste and helped you realize the benefits, both social and economic, on preventing food waste in the first place. To learn more about ways you can prevent food waste, check out our blog.

How We Can Help

OneThird makes shelf life prediction solutions to prevent food waste, so you are staying at the top of the pyramid. We work with growers, distributors, and retailers to make smarter decisions about food by measuring shelf life.

If you’re interested in learning more about shelf life prediction, be sure to read The Ultimate Guide to Fresh Produce Shelf Life Prediction.

Ultimate Guide to Fresh Produce Shelf Life Prediction

To learn more about how we can help you reduce your food waste, visit Our Solutions.

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