Food Waste: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – Transcript

Producers, sellers, and consumers waste tons of food. John Oliver discusses the shocking amount of food we don’t eat.
Food Waste: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 2 Episode 21
Aired on July 19, 2015

[John] Welcome, welcome, welcome to Last Week Tonight. I’m John Oliver. Thank you so much for joining us. Just time for a quick recap of the week. It has been dominated by America’s relationship with Iran. It’s the “Star Wars” of international relationships good in the seventies, terrible for a long time, and now, hopefully, on the brink of a revival. Because this week, we got some major news.

Today President Obama announced an agreement he says will keep an atomic bomb out of Iranian hands for more than a decade.

This deal offers an opportunity to move in a new direction. We should seize it.

[John] Wow, you can tell the president means business because he’s speaking from the “I killed Bin Laden and threw him in the ocean” wing of the White House. And you can tell that Biden means business because he is locking eyes with the camera like a silverback gorilla who thinks you’re challenging his alpha status. “You wanna dance, motherfucker? Iran’s not going nuclear, but Joey B might. Do you want to dance with me?” In his address, the president wanted to make it clear, just because he was making a deal with Iran, did not mean he fully trusted them.

This deal is not built on trust. It is built on verification. Inspectors will have 24/7 access to Iran’s key nuclear facilities.

[John] And that’s a reasonable request. After all, Iran developed nuclear facilities in secret, and then, when they were discovered, claimed they were for civilian purposes. Which is a bit like having your girlfriend discover your real doll and saying “wait, what? I’m getting my lifeguard certification, and they require that your CPR dummy have a medically accurate anus and vagina. I’m allowed this.” And it’s perhaps that lack of trust which is why the terms of this agreement are so severe.

Iran will remove two thirds of its installed centrifuges. Iran will not use its advanced centrifuges to produce enriched uranium for the next decade. Iran will also get rid of 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium. That stockpile will be reduced to a fraction of what would be required for a single weapon.

[John] Yes, if they obey the terms of the deal, Iran won’t have enough material to make a single bomb. And if you’re wondering if they could make one really teeny bomb that they could strap to a suicide hamster and use to blow up a mailbox, well no. We asked. And no. They can’t do that, it’s, they can’t do it. We did ask though. There was actually a good reason the president was making a hard sell for this deal. He knew that there were some who within hours of the deal being announced simply would not be able to wait to start criticizing it.

This is a bad deal. The worst possible outcome, is you’ve created a nuclear arms race in the Mideast, you put Israel at risk and you put us at risk.

The only other thing that I would add is that we don’t know all the specifics to this plan.

That’s true.

You yourself haven’t read anything…

That’s true.

[John] He hadn’t read it! Lindsey Graham is discussing the Iran deal the way a four year old talks about broccoli. “It’s disgusting. It’s the worst food in the world.” “Have you ever tried broccoli?” “No. I have not, but I know I hate it.” And Lindsey Graham, to be fair, wasn’t alone in criticizing the deal based solely on what he thought it contained.

The deal that we have out there, in my view, from what I know of it thus far, is unacceptable. If, in fact, it’s as bad a deal as I think it is at this moment, we’ll do everything we can to stop it.

[John] Wait, as bad as you think it is? That is a clear sign that you didn’t do the reading. It’s like, it’s like starting a book report “some of us are of mice while other are of course.. of men. There have been many good Gatsbys in history, but only one that I would call the Great Gatsby.” The things is, how can you not read this deal before commenting? It’s only 159 pages long, and much of that is lists and preamble. The actual meat of the agreement is about 90 pages, making it around half the length of “Babysitter’s Club” number one “Kristy’s Great Idea.” I’m not saying the deal is perfect. I’m just saying, think of the nuclear agreement with Iran as a calzone. It could contain a lot of things from cheese, marinara sauce to a dead mouse. But the point is, you don’t get to complain about what might be inside unless you have fucking looked.

[John] So let’s move on now to Mexico. Or, as you may know it, spicy Canada. Last weekend, Mexico’s leading drug boss, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, escaped from prison. Just wait until you hear the details of how he got out.

Mexican government taking ABC News through the now notorious tunnel running nearly a full mile underground from the shower in El Chapo’s prison cell all the way to a half built house used to hide an estimated 379 truckloads of dirt pulled out of the ground to make that tunnel. Look closely. You can see rails. Authorities finding this modified motorcycle down below, as well.

[John] Listen, listen, I know El Chapo is a bad man, but that is incredible. He escaped through a literal underground railroad, built using a tiny motorbike. The plan he designed when he was 12 worked. Now clearly, clearly the Mexican authorities have some serious questions to answer, especially considering this could hardly have been a surprise.

He is and has been known for years as the tunnel specialist. He has been known to bring sophisticated equipment, engineers and others, to build tunnels on the US-Mexican border for years. Perhaps it was so obvious that they just discarded it as a possibility.

[John] That’s the point. Of course El Chapo was going to escape through a tunnel. It’s as inevitable as Wes Anderson’s next movie featuring an eccentrically dressed Bill Murray, a Kinks soundtrack and the memory of how much you liked “Rushmore.” It’s going to happen! And look, if you’re thinking, “well, sure, they knew he liked tunnels, but how could they possibly have known he would dig one under his bathroom?” This is how he escaped the Mexican military just a year and a half ago.

When they got inside, El Chapo was nowhere to be found. But they did find this…. The tub. Look at this. The escape hatch Underneath is the entranceway to a hidden tunnel.

[John] He escaped through a bathroom based tunnel! Come on, Mexico! You have to know, you cannot allow this man near plumbing. You can’t allow it. And you don’t even need his past history to know that. Look at him! He is just one M on his hat away from looking like a psychopathic Super Mario. You have to see it coming.

[John] And finally, finally this week North Korea, earth’s Florida. Next month, is the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation day, the date marking the end of Japanese colonial rule. The big question is, what do you get the country that is ordered to think it has everything? Apparently, Kim Jong Un has decided that for the first time ever a foreign rock band will play there. So who’s it gonna be? Rolling Stones? U2? A Michael Jackson impersonator passed off as the real thing, ’cause North Koreans don’t know he’s dead yet? Well, well no. Because it turns out it’s going to be and this is true, a Slovenian art rock group called Laibach. If you’re not familiar with them, this is the happy celebratory music that North Koreans will be listening to on their special anniversary.

Europe is falling apart.
Europe is falling apart.
Europe is falling apart.

[John] Happy liberation day, North Korea. Sleep well. Look, Laibach might seem like an odd choice. But you can understand what totalitarian dictator Kim Jong Un might see in them, when you watch their video “Dance with Laibach”.

We dance with fascism and red anarchy.
Give me both your hands one, two, three, four.

[John] Of course Kim Jong Un loves this band! That video is basically his answer to, “where do you see yourself in five years?” “I dunno, probably leading a skeleton army into battle if all goes well.” Now, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Laibach has been accused of glorifying fascism in the past, to which their response has been “we are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter.” Which I assume means they are fascists, they’re just very bad at it. But before you worry that their music might be too much of a downer for the people of North Korea, please know that Laibach promised the program will also feature and this is true, them reinterpreting songs from the “Sound of Music.” Which, yes, sounds a little weird, but it actually wouldn’t be the first time they’ve brought that fun Laibach touch to other people’s music. I give you their absolutely inexplicable cover of “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Pleased to meet you,
Hope you guessed my name.
But what’s puzzling you Is just the nature of my game.

[John] Finally we have an answer to the question what if Freddie Mercury was trapped in a cave, had just swallowed a frog, and was trying to sing it out? I have got to say North Korea seems like a terrifying place to visit. But if it is really true that that guy is going to be singing “The Sound of Music” I kind of want to go there. I need to hear him bark about whiskers on kittens.

[John] And now this.

And now, CBS This Morning’s awkward sex talk. Men average about 14 sexual partners during their lifetime and women average about 8. Do those numbers seem about right to you guys? Charlie says look, I only have ten fingers and ten toes. That’s not right.

No, Charlie says I’m not going there.

Oh okay. It is hard to cover both boobs with one arm. Try that, that’s a sport. Depending on the size of your boobs, actually. Do you have a comment, dear? No. If you have sex on the first date, do you think less of a person who has sex with you on the first date?


You don’t? For most men, their definition of great sex is if their partner says that was great sex. It’s true.

Is that true?

No. Charlie, don’t you like a girl in wings? I need to get me some wings.

I like a girl in Victoria’s Secret.

Okay. That works too.

[John] Moving on our main story tonight concerns food, or as plants and animals might call it, the afterlife.

We love food in America. As you would know, if you’ve ever turned on a television set.

IHOP all you can eat pancakes are back. Introducing all you can eat wings! Only at Golden Corral! Everyone’s favorite endless shrimp is back! People wait for this promotion all year long. Riblets, riblets, riblets! Applebee’s has riblets! All that you can eat now riblets!

[John] “Sadness, sadness, sadness! Let food replace your sadness! Stuff riblets in that hole in your heart!”

That’s a catchy way to sell hog scraps hidden in barbecue sauce. In fact, celebrating America often goes hand in hand with celebrating its food. Watch this actual commercial running right now.

What’s more American than a cheeseburger? This cheeseburger. Loaded with a hotdog and potato chips. In the hands of all American model Samantha Hoops. In a hot tub. In a pickup truck. Driven by an American bull rider. On an aircraft carrier. Under the gaze of Lady Liberty. As she admires the most American thickburger. New at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.

[John] Wow! A cheeseburger with hot dog and potato chips. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the new Confederate flag. She’s majestic. But this is not a story about the food we eat. It’s a story about the food we don’t eat. Because there is a surprising amount of it.

A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council says that as much as 40% of all food produced in the United States never gets eaten.

Americans throw away 165 billion dollars worth of food every year. That’s about twenty pounds per person every month.

Americans throw away enough food every year to fill 730 football stadiums.

[John] Food waste is like the band Rascal Flatts it can fill a surprising number of stadiums even though many people consider it complete garbage. Between producers, sellers and consumers, Americans are throwing out a third or more of our food. The amount we throw out has increased by around 50 percent since the 1970s. At this rate, in 40 years, when you order pizza from Dominos, they’ll just deliver it straight to the nearest dumpster. As they should, but that’s not the point here. And if you think that this sounds bad, just wait until you see how it looks. Check out this waste dump in California’s Salinas Valley.

We got a whole load pretty much of loose organic lettuce. We’ve got spinach towards the back. Looks like it’s perfectly fine, nothing wrong with it. We got some, some kale here. We got broccoli in the back as well. We have plenty of produce to make a salad here.

[John] Oh, not just a salad. You could make a significantly better salad than the salads they actually sell at McDonalds, which look like the trimmings in Ronald McDonald’s lawnmower mixed with grimace ejaculate. And the thing is, watching all that food go from farm to not a table is awful for a bunch of reasons. First, and most obviously, there are many people in this country who need that food. In 2013, nearly 50 million Americans lived in food insecure households, meaning that at some point in the year, they struggled to put enough food on the table. The fact that we throw away a third of our food gets pretty alarming when you hear from some of those people.

It’s hard. I’ll go without food before my kids will. Budget is down to the penny and it’s just not enough still.

It brings you to tears.



It’s just hard. They’re so young and it’s hard.

[John] It is crazy that that is happening in a country with 730 football stadiums full of uneaten food. It’s insane. But there are also other, less obvious consequences to discarding food. For a start, we’re wasting all the labor and natural resources that went into making it. And at a time when the landscape of California is shriveling up like a pumpkin in front of a house with a lazy dad, it seems especially unwise that farmers are pumping water into food that ends up being used as a garnish for landfills. Because those landfills go on to cause problems of their own.

If you were to throw an apple core out just out into the woods, it’s not a big deal. The problem comes when all of that waste is aggregated and it decomposing without air in a landfill. That anaerobic condition is what creates methane, which is a greenhouse gas that’s more than 20 times as potent as CO2 at trapping heat.

[John] That’s right when we dump food into a landfill, we’re essentially throwing a trash blanket over a flatulent food, man and Dutch oven’ing the entire planet. And if you’re thinking, “but hold on, John, what if I’m an asshole who couldn’t give a shit about America’s hungry families or the long term viability of life on earth?” Well, first, let me say, Mr. Trump, thank you so much for taking the time to watch this show tonight. It’s lovely to have you with us. And secondly, don’t worry there is a selfish financial reason for you to care about this story, too.

In our households, we’re wasting between 15 and 25 % of the food that we’re buying. That’s expensive. Imagine walking out of a grocery store with four bags of groceries, dropping one in the parking lot and just not bothering to pick it up. That’s essentially what we’re doing in our homes today.

[John] And that’s not good. When you’re throwing away that much food, you’re not just being wasteful, you’re wining and dining raccoons. “This is absolutely lovely! Thanks for this! We needed a break from the kids!” And look, it’s a good thing so many of us have access to plenty of relatively inexpensive food. I love that we live in a country with with Cap’n Crunch, Peanut butter crunch, Chocolatey crunch, Sprinkled donut crunch, Cinnamon roll crunch, Christmas crunch and Halloween crunch. I will even defend Oops All Berries Crunch a cereal so unnecessary that its actual name includes an apology for its existence. But it does seem like our food wastage is getting to a critical mass. And so much of it stems from our own habits and misconceptions. For instance stores big and small often routinely overstock, so that you can walk in and see tons of food there. Because if they don’t that, as this small farm stand operator describes it, we might not buy anything.

If this is what I had and there was an hour left in the market. That one bunch of chards would sit there and no one would buy it. But if I had 30 bunches of chard all like bursting out, I’d probably sell like 25 of those bunches of chard. What does that say? People are totally impulse shopping. And they think if there’s one left, that there’s something wrong with it.

[John] It’s true. I wouldn’t buy that chard. Partly because it’s chard, but mainly because we naturally assume the last option is a bad option. Which, in many contexts, is absolutely the case. For example you don’t want the last magazine in the doctor’s office, because it’s always “Golf Digest”. Always. And no one has ever read “Golf Digest.” It’s not even a golf club in his hand, but no one noticed, because it’s on “Golf Digest.” But when it comes to produce, the last option is probably completely fine. Especially because, as another farmer explains, even slightly sub par fruits and vegetables don’t make it to the produce aisle.

Every time that the people are picking, they’ll have a few they throw on the ground, because there’s always a few that aren’t quite perfect. This is a perfectly good peach. Right on the ground like this. My God, if you just look down this way, it’s like a bounty. Look at that.

[John] And the reason that happens is that if a peach doesn’t meet strict aesthetic standards, it might not be worth a farmer even trying to sell it. Our produce aisles have become a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio’s penis, exclusively accessible to the physically flawless. And it’s not right. That’s not right. In fact, our produce body shaming is actually so ingrained, it’s reflected in the USDA’s grading standards. Just look at the visual grading standards for peaches. This is a no. 1 peach. And of course it is. That’s an undeniably beautiful peach. I want to buy that peach dinner and fuck it. Whereas, whereas – and brace yourself – this is a US number two peach. And that is an abomination unto the Lord. And as soon as it is labeled a number two, it can lose two thirds of its market value to a farmer, even though its contents are the same. And many retailers have standards even more strict than the USDA’s. All of which is why so many peaches end up being thrown on the ground to rot. And that should not be how we treat our fruit. It should only be how we treat our celebrities. So help me God, Channing Tatum, you lose one muscle fiber on that six pack, and I will personally toss you into Hollywood’s landfill. You keep it tight, Tatum. Hashtag, keepittighttatum. Do it.

And the thing is, we don’t just reject food because of how it looks. Sometimes, we do it out of pure fear. According to one estimate, 91 percent of us have thrown out food that’s past its sell by date, because we’re afraid it’s not safe. And I am absolutely part of that 91 percent. We’re weirdly reverent towards these dates, even when they make no sense.

Use by, sell by. And nothing. But just a date.

And this is all the same brand.

This is all the same brand. This is not only the same brand, but also the same 2%.

So what does this show us?

This shows there’s complete confusion out there.

[John] The only labels on food more meaningless than those are the ones on Smirnoff bottles that say “triple distilled vodka.” Oh really, Smirnoff? So you ran the potato sweat through the tube sock two extra times? Thanks for spending the effort. We naturally assume sell by dates reflect a uniform standard of safety. But that is not true.

Well, actually it has nothing to do with safety at all. It’s just a manufacturers best guess of when that food is gonna be the freshest and at the best quality.

[John] Exactly, those dates are decided on by manufacturers. And if I were a food manufacturer, I’d make those dates as tight as possible to convince people to buy a new one of my products. Because unlike Apple, I can’t just create a new operating system that suddenly means your old cereal is incompatible with your mouth. The truth is, with the exception of baby formula, the federal government does not require any food to carry an expiration date. And state laws vary widely, with nine states not requiring any date labels at all. Which means, most of the time, sell by dates are one of those things that look official, but you can probably ignore, like a child in a cop uniform. Just stop it, Tyler. I’m not under “awwest!” You’re under awwest!

But because we think those dates are real, many supermarkets throw expired food out even before its sell by date. And they don’t donate it for what they think is a pretty good reason.

Do you have anything that’s close dated or any culls?

No, we can’t do that.

You can’t?

No. It’s a food and health and safety issues.

Do you guys donate it then? You don’t donate.

No. It goes right in the garbage can. We do it because we’d get too many lawsuits.

It’s too many lawsuits? Have you guys been sued before?

I don’t know, to tell you the truth. But it’s a health and safety issue.

[John] That’s a common misconception. We all think that if you donate food and someone gets sick, you could get sued. I thought that until earlier this week. But we looked into it and couldn’t find a single case where a food donor has been sued. It doesn’t happen. It’s a false fear, like believing if you go in the water after eating you’ll get a cramp and drown. It turns out, that isn’t true, either. This week has blown my mind! Because the system is, if you donate food to a charity, you’re covered by the Emerson Act, which says you cannot be sued if you make a food donation in good faith. You presumably get the same cover with donating clothes, even though, in some cases there you really should be sued. Donating a cowl neck sweater? Hello?! The homeless live in shelters, not fall 2008. But here’s the problem even if more people understood that, there would still be food that doesn’t get to people who need it, for a critical reason.

Harold McClarty of HMC Farms says he’d like to donate more of his peaches to the food banks but…

Getting it into the hands of somebody to eat, it isn’t free. There’s got to be an economic incentive to move more of this into an avenue that food banks could take advantage of. It’s a lot easier and cheaper just to basically throw it away.

[John] And that may be the biggest issue of all. For businesses, donating food is genuinely expensive. You’ve got to box it, store it, coordinate deliveries for it… There’s a lot of overheads. And you cannot fault companies for caring about their bottom line, in the same way you can’t fault a dog for caring about licking its balls. It’s what dogs do. It’s natural. And dog balls are delicious. Companies, in their defense, are not charities. Which is why they should be incentivized to donate food with tax breaks. Large corporations already get one. But annoyingly, that same break for small businesses is not a permanent part of the tax code. Meaning that Congress has to keep renewing it. That’s a problem because family farms or local restaurants may not know if they’re going to get that break at the end of the year and therefore whether donating food will be financially viable for them. It’s a ridiculous system, which probably prevents a lot of food from being donated. So here is the good news: in February this year, a congressman proposed HR 644, the Fighting Hunger Incentive Act, to make that tax break permanent. Here actually is one of the bill’s sponsors.

It’s time to get rid of these short term fixes, embrace long term solutions. This legislation simply makes the provisions permanent.

[John] And when you think about it, that’s important, because when something’s not permanent, it affects our behavior. That’s why we all treat rental cars like we’re in a “Fast and Furious” movie. “Oh I’m sorry, sharp turn ahead? Get ready to drift, Kia Sorrento. Woo!” Now, now you’ll be happy to hear, that bill passed the House. However, by the time it did, it had been bundled together with other, unpaid for tax breaks, and retitled the America Gives More Act. But still, that original provision was in there. Which means this problem has been solved, the show is over and we can roll credits and all live happily ever after, right? No, not right. Because when the bill got to the Senate, they, and I honestly did not know this was even possible, they removed everything from inside the bill, retitled it the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, refilled it with completely different language concerning border control and US-Israeli relations. Which meant yes, HR 644 passed, just with a completely different title and completely different contents. It’s like going to a restaurant, ordering a veggie burger and having the waiter say “here you go, we made it out of meatloaf and we call it a waffle.” And then you can’t even say, “well I don’t want this, give it to someone who needs it, because they can’t, because they don’t know whether or not they’ll get a fucking tax credit for it. And look, the insane thing is everyone basically agrees, small businesses should get tax incentives to donate food. So we have to find a way to pass that. But even if we do, it will be one small part of what needs to be a much bigger solution, from resolving to eat uglier fruit, to taking expiration dates with a pinch of salt, to no longer worrying about getting sued by high powered lawyers representing the hungry. And we all have to address our relationship with food waste. Or at the very least, our cheeseburger commercials are going to have to get a lot more honest.

What’s more American than a cheeseburger? This cheeseburger, loaded with a hot dog and potato chips. In the hands of a model. In a hot tub. In a pick up truck. On an aircraft carrier. In front of the Statue of Liberty. I’ll tell you what’s more American. If that cheeseburger’s then thrown away, along with 15 other cheeseburgers in front of a food insecure family of four who frankly cannot fucking believe their eyes. As they stand on top of 14 tons of perfectly edible if aesthetically unappealing fruits and vegetables. Which in turn sits on top of 80 tons of diary products, all one day past their arbitrary sell by date. All of which sits inside a tear, rolling down Abraham Lincoln’s face on Mount Rushmore, which is now nearly chin deep in millions of discarded cheeseburgers, all gradually decomposing and emitting flammable methane in red, white and blue. That is fucking American! Available in dumpsters behind Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.

That’s our show. Thank you so much for watching. Good night!


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