Food waste in the United States has reached staggering proportions: It’s estimated that 30% to 40% of the food we produce in the country now goes to waste, and it’s not just a large-scale problem on the parts of retailers and food corporations. Individuals throw away a lot of food (and money, in the process) as well. But if you feel bad about those carrots that went off or the container of strawberries that’s developed an unsightly fuzz, you may be overlooking one of the most significant factors of food waste: the wasting of animal products.
When we waste meat, we’re not just wasting the food itself but also the massive number of resources that went into producing that meat. For some perspective, consider the fact that approximately 40% of the world’s grains are used to feed animals on farms. The land needed to produce the staggering amount of meat and dairy products that we as a world consume comes out to about a third of the total arable land on the planet. And Tristram Stuart, author of the book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, claims that “on average livestock lose over 70% of the calories in the harvests fed to them.”
So, on the food waste front, eating meat is already problematic. But what’s even worse is the fact that so much of that meat is never consumed—not because it goes bad or it’s not purchased in time. Rather, there’s just no market for it. I’m talking about offal, also known as organ meat, which makes up a significant portion of the meat that comes from the animals we slaughter.
However, in the United States along with countries like the UK, eating organ meats has gone out of fashion. We’d rather stick to the muscular tissue, which is mostly what you’ll find at large-scale grocery stores in the United States. Though specialty stores may offer liver, tripe and tongue, most big box grocery stores offer an extremely limited amount of offal. The same can be said for our restaurants as well: You’re not likely to find many American restaurants with wide appeal serving butter-braised pork hearts.
But what happens to the organs we’re not eating? Although some of it may end up in pet food or serving other less-than-glorious purposes, a lot of it is simply trashed. This is a massive waste of not only resources but also culinary potential. How much more interesting would our diets be if we followed in the footsteps of other cultures that embrace and enjoy offal? Crispy, crunchy pig eats and snouts from Spain, hearty kokorec from Turkey and bubbling motsunabe from Japan could become exciting facets of the American diet if only we open ourselves up to new ingredients.
To be fair, though, these ingredients aren’t even that new to U.S. culture—they’ve simply been forgotten. During World War II, offal consumption was encouraged to help stretch the country’s meat supply to support war efforts, and cookbooks from the era featured a slew of dishes that called for organ meat. At one point, the U.S. did have an appetite for offal—it’s just a matter of rekindling it in the 21st century. Luckily, average Americans now have more access than ever to other cultures’ cuisines, which could encourage us to find varied dishes from across the world that satisfy our offal appetites.
It could be argued that our reticence to eat organ meats in the U.S. has less to do with the loss of a habit and more to do with the erasure of the food supply chain on the collective conscious. For most Americans, the food system starts at the grocery store and ends at the kitchen. But eating more organ meats could help us better understand where our food comes from and what goes into the process of producing it. We are uncomfortable with the idea of our meals causing death and contributing to workers’ rights issues, but these are realities we need to face if we want to make changes. We should be thinking about these things. And if eating organ meats can encourage us to think even slightly more critically about where our food comes from, that’s just another reason to encourage all of us to eat more of it.
Unlike other dietary changes, like veganism and locavorism, that could improve the sustainability of our eating patterns, eating more offal does not require us to cut anything out of our diets. Rather, it encourages us to cast a wider net, explore different cultures and try foods previously unfamiliar to us. Of course, it’s far from a silver bullet for fixing our food system or even ending food waste. But with so many delicious offal dishes for us to explore in the world, it’s a positive change that can make our weekly meal plans more exciting, more enjoyable and, hopefully, more thoughtful.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.