A couple of weeks ago, as the two of us were grocery shopping, my mother came across several packages of smoked salmon stamped with ‘Use By’ dates from the day before. She eagerly snatched up three packages and, when we were checking out, tried to negotiate with the cashier to sell them to her at a 50% discount. She knew that the fish were still safe but would probably be thrown out at the end of the day, so she argued that the store would be better off making a reduced sale than getting nothing at all and tossing perfectly good fish. The flustered cashier quickly called over her supervisor, who told us that they could make no deals. When my mother asked, “But what are you going to do with it? Isn’t it sad to have to throw it away?” the supervisor assured us that it wouldn’t be thrown out, just “sent back.” My mother accepted her defeat and didn’t buy the salmon, unwilling to pay full price. However, we were both very skeptical about the ‘sent back’ idea.
First off, I don’t even know whether the supervisor was telling the truth. She might have been frazzled and blurted out a lie, unwilling to admit either ignorance or the shameful reality that the fish would go to waste. More importantly, if unsold fish does get sent back to the manufacturer, I doubted that would be is a better fate. Ideally, the ‘old’ fish would be put to some other use, such as making salmon cream cheese or at least cat food – but my knowledge of the wastefulness of the food industry leaves me pessimistic. The return would probably just delay the inevitable disposal of the fish. In fact, the extra step just seemed like a waste of energy via transportation.
Curious as to what happens when supermarkets return food to manufacturers, I decided to investigate the practice as well as my specific grocery store’s policy. Unfortunately, I mainly found articles about customers returning groceries and what generally happens to expired food in stores. For instance, retailers can get rid of their unwanted food products by selling them to salvage grocery stores, which resell safe-but-(officially)-outdated items at reduced prices, or by donating them to food banks. Nowhere could I find detailed information about stores returning outdated products to their sources. The most relevant result came from Inbound Logistics Magazine, which says that “many food manufacturers and retailers set up local donation programs to deal with saleable returns and procedures for destroying expired product.” Destroying expired product – exactly as I’d suspected.
On the other hand, my grocery chain’s website vaguely describes its commitment to sustainability and claims that at least 90% of its ‘unsellable’ items are donated, reused, or recycled. Recycling, I assume, means composting; so, while it still saddens me when edible food goes uneaten, I’m glad that the company focuses on avoiding landfills. The stores have also been phasing out unrecyclable packaging materials.
A week after the salmon experience, my dad told me that he had pointed out some outdated products to an employee at the same store and was told that it would be donated to a local soup kitchen. As with most food retailers, the donating vs. reusing vs. disposing decision seems to depend on the type of food at stake. People tend to be more cautious about reselling seafood, meat, or dairy products because they are at high risk for contamination, whereas something like stale bread is pretty safe and easy to repurpose. Still, I am disappointed in the store’s obstinacy about the smoked salmon. If only there were customer waivers reading, I will sue neither this store nor the manufacturer for selling me this fish. I suppose that is the unspoken agreement made when shopping at salvage stores.
The more consumer concern voiced about food waste, the more pressure is put on grocery stores to adopt sustainable practices. Make a point of buying outdated items, check out salvage stores, and look into your local retailers’ donation policies.
PS: See Hokuma’s article for more info.