Second Life: What Happens to Old and Expired Supermarket Products

Ryan Blankenship, 34, owner of the California Discount Grocery, got into the salvage business less than two years ago when he realized how lucrative an industry it was. Recently he noticed that the amount of expired foods he receives fluctuates with the seasons. " At the beginning of the year we got a lot of outdated holiday foods," he explains, attributing the abundance of stock to the recession's effect on holiday spending. "But now only about 20-25 percent of what we have is expired."

Nonetheless, Blackenship has a store policy of not putting anything on his shelves that is more than three months old -- but that's mostly because the older the food the less likely it will sell. Still, it's easier to shift certain types of outdated items than others. "Canned foods will sell much more easier than, say, cookies or chips if they are past their best-before date. We don't offer old bread like day-old bakeries, or anything like that, just because it would be difficult to sell," he says

FROM SUPERMARKET AISLES TO FEEDING AMERICA'S HUNGRY

According to a 2005 FMI Supermarkets and Food Bank study, more than half of the 8,360 supermarkets surveyed donated 100,000 pounds of product that they could not sell to food banks annually. Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, which serves over 1,200 soup kitchens, homeless shelters, food pantries, and other charity agencies, is one recipient. According to Executive Director John Arnold, up to 40 percent of the food that they receive is close to expiring or already expired.

If there is any doubt over the safety or the quality of a product, the bank's certified dietician will be brought in and subject it to a formal testing procedure. When it comes to a perishable item, there are clear indicators of quality. "If it's going bad there's rarely any mystery," Arnold says. "It lets you know, either with its appearance or its smell or its texture."

But despite general confidence among food banks that expired foods can be safely distributed to their agencies, not everyone agrees. According to Anne Goodman, executive director of the Cleveland Foodbank in Ohio, "when we get retail products from grocery stores we sort out products which are past their expiration date and we throw them away. We never take a chance." Perhaps if Goodman had heard the comment a certain manufacturer once told Arnold, she might be less cautious: "We put enough preservatives in our food to embalm an elephant," the manufacturer confessed.

AND IF YOU DON'T WANT TO BUY OUTDATED, JUST TAKE IT

If you see Leia Mondragon, 24, rifling through trash outside the grocery stores of Manhattan's West Village, don't be tempted to offer her your loose change. Unlike the homeless or needy who must resort to picking from trash, Mondragon's penchant for outdated foods is a lifestyle choice. Mondragan insists that expiration dates exist to propel consumerism. This belief is shared by many of her fellow Freegans -- a community who subsist on minimal consumption and salvaged goods.

"The manufacturing world uses it as a way to push products through the system; a way to get the stores to keep buying in bulk and keep things moving in and out of shops," she says.

At least twice a month and sometimes more, Mondragon arms herself with bags or a cart and goes foraging through New York City's urban jungle either by herself or with friends. In the evening, stores will leave their trash outside on the sidewalk awaiting collection from garbage trucks that come around one or two in the morning. The Freegans ensure they arrive before the trucks to avoid losing their spoils.

"I don't go by the dates, I only pay attention to my senses," Mondragon says. "This is backed up by billions of years of evolution. We've survived by sensing what is good for us and what is not." And with most stores removing stock from shelves on the day or the day before its sell-by dates arrives, Mondragon knows that she has a few days before anything in the trash will go bad. "Stores are not going to sell something that as soon as you buy it it's going to rot," she theorizes. Furthermore, as she picks up her food only a couple of hours after it has been dumped, even produce and fresh meat will not likely spoil from lack of refrigeration.

In fact, spoilage is something that Freegan Sowmya Reddy has never experienced from eating outdated foods from the trash. Neither has she seen any vermin mixed up with her dinner. "Because the trash bags are tied up tightly and dumpsters closed, rats or mice cannot get in," she says.

Having recently moved to New York City from Bangalore, India, for her post-graduate studies, Reddy has even been able to find a taste of home in the trash. When she wants Indian ingredients like chilies and spices, she heads down to Manhattan's Murray Hill, which is full of Indian grocery stores.

"You learn how to be resourceful for things," explains Mondragon, whose favorite supermarkets are D'Agostino's and Gristedes for general groceries. "I know what sorts of things a lot of places throw out, what they usually overbuy or have excess stock on." And even if the Freegan's menu relies on expired fare from the garbage, her choice is far from limited. Mondragon knows exactly where to go for bagels, broccoli rabe, kale, especially ripe mangoes, and even cupcakes.

Venture past the Crumbs bakery on West 8th in Manhattan at 9 p.m. one evening and chances are you'll catch Mondragon with her head inside a trash bag searching for the vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting. Just don't fight her for them. There's plenty to go around, she says.

Image: ducu59us/Shutterstock.

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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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