Second Life: What Happens to Old and Expired Supermarket Products

It doesn't all end up in the trash. Once food hits its sell-by date, many markets donate products to food banks or sell them to salvage stores.

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As darkness falls, your local supermarket becomes a hive of activity. From canned vegetables and salad dressings to fresh fruits and deli meats, countless items are removed from shelves by night staff. Approaching their expiration dates or because they are no longer at their peak quality, most stores consider them unfit for sale. With 15,000 different products in an average supermarket and 25,000 in a superstore according to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), retailers in the U.S. are lumbered with endless pounds of past-their-prime items every year.

So what comes of all of this food? Fresh vegetables and meats are often cooked up for in-store deli and salad counters before they spoil, says supermarket consultant David J. Livingston. A portion of it is inevitably thrown into the garbage and ends up in landfills. But a surprisingly amount of it finds a second home. Some is given away to food banks, some sold to salvage stores, and the rest taken by people who scrounge outside supermarkets.

With the current economic troubles, expired foods are increasingly becoming a part of America's diet. Salvage stores are seeing a steady uptick in business from cost-conscious consumers. Similarly, food banks across the country have reported an increase of up to 40 percent in the demand for emergency food assistance in the past year, according to a survey by Feeding America, a network of over 200 food banks.

And even the Food and Drug Administration approves of outdated fare. The government agency decided that expiration dates are simply an indication of optimum quality as deemed by the manufacturer. "Foods can remain safe to consume for some time beyond sell-by and even use-by dates provided they are handled and stored properly," says Dr. Ted Labuza, a professor of food science at the University of Minnesota. For fresh produce and refrigerated foods this means storage at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Canned foods and shelf-stable goods like salad dressings, Labuza adds, can be consumed for years beyond their expiration dates. While their quality might suffer -- for example, emulsified dressings may split -- they will not pose a safety hazard unless contaminated. Apart from baby formula and certain types of baby foods, product dating is not even required by federal regulations.

"We don't expect to lose any customers as the economy gets better, because when they hit the regular stores, they won't be able to handle those prices any more."

BACK ON THE STORE SHELVES

Take a walk through the Country Discount Grocery in Wautoma, Wisconsin, and you'll see outdated packs of Quaker's granola bars, Cheerios cereal boxes, and bottles of A1 Steak Sauce. Hundreds of salvage grocery stores just like this one take advantage of the fact that retailers are generally not beholden to abide by dates stamped on food items.

Distinct from outlets run by manufacturers such as Pepperidge Farm and Entenmann's, which retail outdated baked goods from overproduction, salvage grocery stores sell past-their-prime foods discarded by supermarkets and regular grocery stores.

Outdated, damaged, and out-of-season items from supermarkets, collectively known as "unsaleables," are sent to large clearing houses known as reclamation centers. These are most often operated by the supermarket chains themselves or wholesale distributors. Here, dangerous items such as broken jars and obviously contaminated or spoiled foods are disposed of. The remainder is sold into the salvage industry or donated to food banks.

Every two weeks Patricia Quillen, owner of the Country Discount Grocery, re-stock her store with a 53-foot trailer packed full of goods from the reclamation center. The unsaleables are stuffed into cardboard banana boxes, each one containing a mixture of up to 40 different food and health and beauty items. No one box is identical. So Quillen says she really doesn't know what's going to line her shelves until she opens them up. In fact, out of the 1,152 boxes in a single delivery there might be just one jar of much-desired blueberry jam.

Up to 50 percent of Quillen's stock is outdated and a further 10-15 percent is very close to its best-before stamp. But clearly her customers don't mind. "We have about 100 customers every day and 150 on the weekend," Quillen says. She checks online, visits Walmart, and uses leftover price labels on stock as an indicator of the former retail value of her stock. Then she prices it a full 50 percent cheaper. Outdated cans of Campbell's chunky soup at 80 cents and Campbell's regular soups at 50 cents were big winter sellers. With the arrival of spring, Quillen anticipates that the canned fruit will be in demand.

Quillen's customers now don't think about much the dates, but when she first opened the shop five years ago, it was a different scenario. "People thought we were going to kill them," she said, adding with a laugh, "so we told them we only depend on new customers because we killed off our old ones." But she soon educated them. "At first they would buy $10 worth and if they lived through that, they would come back and buy $25," she says. Now some of her customers spend hundreds of dollars at a time.

While other businesses may be suffering during these lean economic times, Quillen says that her sales have increased nearly 40 percent over the past year. And she's confident that this isn't a fad. "We don't expect to lose any customers as the economy gets better, she says, "because when they hit the regular stores, they won't be able to handle those prices any more."

Presented by

Nadia Arumugam is a writer in New York City and the author of the cookbook, Chop, Sizzle & Stir. Her work has appeared in Fine Cooking, Slate, Epicurious, NPR, and Saveur, and she writes the Chew On This blog for Forbes.com.

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