Expired marshmallows, broken crackers, stale doughnuts, even orange peels are among the billions of pounds of would-be waste that help feed livestock every year.
The massive but little-known recycling system 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 into 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 most 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.