That’s the polite characterization of yet another activist attack on animal agriculture and the mainstream American diet: Now, they want you to feel guilty about what you don’t eat.

In the beginning, the primary activist strategy was making people feel anxious about eating meat and dairy products, howling about the threat of foodborne illness and the early onset of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes.

In other words, eating animal foods will kill you.

Then, the approach broadened to demonize the production of animal foods, due to the (alleged) excessive amounts of land, energy and resources required to raise livestock and the emission of greenhouse gases that results.

In other words, producing animal foods will kill the planet.

Now, there is yet another meme emerging: It’s not about consumption or production, it’s about attacking what consumers aren’t eating.

In other words, the meat and dairy products that get wasted are destroying the Earth.

The anti-industry segment of the media has begun focusing on data from a 2012 report titled, “The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States,” produced by USDA’s Economic Research Service.

“Next time you throw out a half-eaten pork chop, keep in mind that you’re wasting a lot more than a dead pig,” a recent article on The Huffington Post began. “Meat waste is worse for the environment than vegetable or grain waste because animal-based foods typically require more energy and emit more greenhouse gases, experts say. And in the United States, we waste a lot of meat.”

The story then references USDA’s report that an estimated 13.4 billion pounds of meat and poultry were “wasted” 2010, with consumers responsible for more than 11.1 billion pounds of that waste. According to a study by Ronald McGarvey, assistant professor at University of Missouri, “meat and protein” was responsible for “the greatest proportion of greenhouse gas emissions” among all categories of food waste.

Inside the reporting

Before proceeding, we need some definitions. According to USDA, food loss represents “the amount of edible food, postharvest, that is available for human consumption but is not consumed. It includes cooking loss and natural shrinkage; loss from mold, pests, or inadequate climate control; plate waste; and other causes.

In contrast, food waste is defined as “a component of food loss and occurs when an edible item goes unconsumed, such as food discarded by retailers due to blemishes or plate waste discarded by consumers.”

Now here’s the key to interpreting USDA’s data: “This report calculates the amount and value of food loss in the United States. It does not calculate the amount and value of food waste or the other subcomponents of food loss. Data are unavailable on the portion of food loss that is food waste.”

So in touting the healthy foods that veggies insist we should be our daily staples, there is a huge gap. Before consumers even get to the supermarket, or the farmer’s market, to purchase all those fresh fruits and vegetables, there are tremendous losses: the loss of a percentage of the crop that doesn’t get harvested; a percentage that is rejected at processing and packaging; a percentage lost due to retail shrink; a percentage lost due to spoilage at the consumer level.

And all of that occurs before even guesstimating plate waste.

In fact, the USDA report makes a significant point in a table titled, “Causes of Food Loss and Waste at the Farm, Farm-to-Retail, Retail, and Consumer Levels.” Let me quote just two of the headings in that table listing all the potential causes of food loss:

  • “Farm Level (not measured in this report)”
  • “Farm-to-Retail Level (not measured in this report)”

Even USDA’s experts really have no way to quantify how much potentially edible food is lost before it ever arrives at a retail supermarket or food service destination — which makes the data comparing losses in the meat and dairy category, whether calculated by weight (meat and milk are much denser than lettuce), cost (animal foods are far pricier on a per-pound basis) or caloric value (obviously, meat and dairy deliver far more calories per pound than fruits or vegetables) highly unreliable.

In reality, the latest activist attack line as warped as any of its predecessors.

Should we all work harder to avoid wasting food? If for no other reason than saving some money, yes.

Can we do a more efficient job of shopping, storing, and preparing the foods we eat? Of course.

But that mandate extends across all food categories, in fact, across all categories of consumer purchasing.

The problem with food waste isn’t about meat versus vegetables.

The problem is our collective tendency to be wasteful — period.

That’s what needs to change. □

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.