Grocery Stores and Expiration Dates, Revisited

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. appetizer salmon canapesThe 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get rid of their unwanted food products by selling them to salvage grocery stores, which resell safe-but-(officially)-outdated items at reduced prices, or by donating them to food banks. Nowhere could I find detailed information about stores returning outdated products to their sources.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.

store1On 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.

Those Funny Freegans

Whenever I explain to someone what freeganism is, the person’s reaction is one of perplexity, disgust, shock, and/or outrage. Sometimes, after I have elaborated on the severity of food waste and its consequences, the person will respond with something like: “I guess I can understand that,” but will still seem wary of the idea and my enthusiasm about it. Like most things that challenge societal norms, it makes us a little uncomfortable.

So, what is freeganism, exactly?

trash freegan is someone who chooses to use food suppliers’ discards as a source of food not due to economic necessity but rather to make a statement about waste. In simpler terms, they are dumpster divers by choice. Freeganism highlights the fact that grocery stores throw away perfectly edible foodstuffs for any of a multitude of absurd reasons. Perhaps an item was approaching its “sell-by” date – which, typically, means it’s still good for another 7-10 days – or a piece of produce didn’t look ‘normal’ or pretty enough to deserve a place on the store’s shelves. Aware of this, freegans decide to save themselves some money and make an important protest by getting their food from dumpsters.

Lots of people are put off by freeganism for health and sanitation reasons. Of course, a freegan needs to be pretty food-savvy. Refrigerated foods and perishables are generally a no-go for obvious reasons, and everything ought to be thoroughly looked over and smelt to make sure it hasn’t gone bad. Packaged foods are probably safest, since their containers protect them from external contamination, but these should be looked up online for recalls, as they could have been infected prior to packaging. Nevertheless, the bins and bags behind stores are usually full of other rejected food products; scrounging them is very different from digging through a regular garbage can, the contents of which could range from cigarette butts to used tissues. As long as the rest of the bag contains safe food, there shouldn’t be any danger in taking food from it.

Digital CameraAnother argument is economic: freegans are getting their food for free, and grocery stores aren’t seeing a penny. However, this isn’t a fault on the freegans part: they just found a loophole in the very faulty food system. Instead of telling them not to take advantage of free food, shouldn’t we focus on redesigning the system so that there isn’t so much good food being tossed aside and up for the taking? Some grocery stores have even taken to spraying their discards with toxins specifically to repel scavengers. Spending more money to ensure that food goes to waste? The backwardness of this approach is, in my impassioned view, unfathomably stupid and unethical.

I hugely admire freegans. My ethical, food-waste-fighting side makes me want to join their ranks, but unfortunately my inner chef and gastronomist would hate to live off of a limited selection. Still, my bucket list includes “Go freegan for a week,” so that I can get a sense of what it’s like, and to know that I’ve saved a couple of pounds of food from going to waste.

Admiring freegans from afar (for now),
Eva Reynolds