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A farmer dumps boxes of cucumbers in a greenhouse in Algarrobo, Spain, in June 2011.
A farmer dumps boxes of cucumbers in a greenhouse in Algarrobo, Spain, in June 2011.
Caroline Brizard

PARIS — The figures are dizzying. According to the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization, 1.3 billion tons of food — one-third of the world's total food products — are thrown away or wasted each year.

Among the food we needlessly toss are yogurt pots that have passed their "best before" date and potatoes that aren't round enough. This food waste costs us 500 billion euros ($685 billion) per year. But it is possible to end the insanity.

Don't discriminate

The main causes of food waste are standards and regulations. The European Union's strict rules on fruits and vegetables have made produce that isn't uniform disappear from the market over the past 10 years.

This obliges famers to select 20% of the original products that don't meet standards and send them to soup or compote factories. Alternatively, they must compost them for fertilizer. This net waste reaches 750,000 tons per year, according to the Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME).

But, as always, there are people who oppose these practices and strict regulations. Some food producers do try and persuade the distribution chain to sell "ugly" but tasty vegetables, with a label saying "It doesn't matter how I look."

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An ad campaing from French supermarket chain Intermarché: "Ugly carrots make for a good soup" — Photo: Intermarché.

The expiration date myth

Anothe problem is the "best before" date. According to La Terre magazine, 600,000 tons of food that are supposedly perishable are thrown away each year. Smart website gaspiFinder does the opposite. You can scan the barcode of the product, and it tells you the number of days the product is still fine to consume, even past the expiration date.

Usually there are two dates, the "use by" date and the "best before" date. Found on dried foods, they are only there for reference. Bags of flour or packets of cookies are safe to eat past either of these dates. That said, consumers often confuse these references and leave the food that they think has expired on the shelves of supermarkets, which have no other choice but to pitch the food.

So in order to avoid confusion, the European Commission has proposed that the EU suppress these references for products such as sugar, vinegar and chocolate.

Give food to charities

Many people may not believe this, but it actually costs much less for supermarkets to donate their leftover produce to charitable organizations than to throw it away. Those who donate food to charities can benefit from tax incentives. Meanwhile, it costs 120 euros per ton to incinerate and dispose of food. "Supermarkets should make a pre-selection before getting rid of food in bulk," says a France Food Bank official.

There's so much more to do

Supermarkets aren't the only ones wasting. Mass food catering in hospitals and canteens is also to blame. There is often food left untouched on meal trays, but where does it go? The trash can.

And then there are all of us at home. The first place to spot our bad habits is in the refrigerator. We have much more milk than we need, things left half preserved, dinners we didn't finish that we promptly forget about. What do we do with yesterday's baguette? Too often, it goes rigth in the trash.

In France, on average each consumer throw away 20 kilos of food every year, which adds up to a waste of 400 euros, according to the Environment and Energy Management Agency. The International Food Bank says that 35% of food waste happens at home, especially in developed countries.

"Our meals are charming but modest, thanks to your profound art of using leftovers," French poet Paul Verlaine wrote in Odes En Son Honneur. In times of economic crisis like these, perhaps leftovers still have their best days ahead of them.

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