Second Life: What Happens to Old and Expired Supermarket Products

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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And even the Food and Drug Administration approves of outdated fare.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."

While Gayle Bryant, 37, from Longview, Washington, may not spend big money at salvage stores -- she tries to keep to a weekly grocery budget of $60 to feed her family of six -- she shops at them several times a month. And she often brings home outdated foods. "I did my own research because a lot of people are scared of eating expired foods," says the housewife.

Bryant won't touch outdated dairy products, but she'll happily throw expired canned foods, cereal, and granola bars into her shopping cart. With savings of more than half what she would spend in a regular store for the same amount of food, she knows its worth glossing over a past best-before date or two, especially since she's never had any problems with the quality of her purchases.

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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