Restaurants have leftover food at multiple stages of the food preparation and service process, and what happens to that leftover food largely depends on why it goes unused, and what stage it is at.
The three stages of meal preparation that are likely to create leftovers are pre-preparation, or leftovers created by overbuying ingredients; prepared but unserved foods, like when the daily special is made, but not all of it sells, resulting in prepared leftovers; and over proportioning, when a customer is served more food than they will eat and they leave their leftovers on their plate.
What is a food recovery program?
Food recovery programs are designed to keep food that is left over at restaurants from ending up in the trash. They take food that is no longer suitable to be used in commercial preparation out of the restaurant kitchen and deliver it to needy people who might otherwise go hungry. These programs are often run by a local soup kitchen, or food pantry, and provide both basic ingredients and warm, prepared meals to those in need.
Ingredients that are no longer fit to serve to consumers because of blemishes, storage time, or other imperfections are often still good for human consumption. Though it would be unethical to feed a bruised apple to a paying customer, it is still a good apple for someone who cannot typically afford fresh produce. These ingredients are often transferred from the restaurant to a local food pantry, using a regular drop off system.
Whole prepared foods, on the other hand, have to be given out more quickly because they will spoil rapidly. Prepared meals, which are left over after a restaurant shift ends, are transferred into to-go boxes, picked up by volunteers working for the food recovery program, and delivered directly into the hands of those who need it most, while the food is still warm and safe for human consumption.
Not all prepared leftovers go to the food recovery service, however. There are two instances when a restaurant will not pass prepared dishes on to food recovery programs for distribution. First, if the food has been out long enough that it might pose a health risk, it is thrown away. There are certain chicken and fish dishes that might go bad in transport, even in a relatively short period of time. These dishes are thrown away for safety concerns.
A restaurant may also elect to keep the leftovers for reuse. For example, chicken breast that was baked, or grilled for Tuesday night’s special can be placed in the freezer overnight, shredded, and reused Wednesday to make chicken pot pie. If the prepared dish is basic, and can be repurposed in the restaurants own recipes without degrading the quality of the meal offered, it often is.
Are restaurants that donate food liable for damages?
Typically, no they are not. The Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act is designed to protect anyone that donates food from legal responsibility if the person consuming the food becomes ill as a result.
The exception is in cases of gross negligence, where there is reason to suspect the food was intentionally poisoned, or knowingly passed on after contamination. The Act was specifically designed to protect restaurants and individuals who were donating leftover food stuffs, because perfectly good food was being thrown away simply to avoid the risk of legal responsibility.
The Emerson Act protects almost all food donations, specifically naming foods that are near, or past, their expiration date; foods that are no longer considered marketable because of their freshness, or condition; and foods that are surplus to a business’s basic needs.
How much food is wasted, and how much is just thrown away?
In America, there is a significant problem with food waste. According to a study that aired on CBS and ABC, Americans throw away more than $165 billion dollars worth of food each year, which averages out to 20 pounds of food per person, per month.
There are two primary moments when food is wasted in the restaurant setting. First, ingredients which are purchased fresh, but pass their prime before being used, are often discarded and replaced with fresher ingredients. For example, if a pepper has any blemish, the whole pepper is thrown away, rather than simply cutting out the unwanted portion to use the rest.
An even larger area of waste, however, is in the over portioning. The fact that American’s portion sizes have expanded to include what is truly more than three healthy servings, causes a lot of waste in the restaurant setting. Guests will leave the uneaten food on their plate and, because it is a personal dish from which people have eaten, the restaurant has no alternative but to throw the leftover food away.