The out-of-date yogurt cartons, the dented cans, the misshapen potatoes that shoppers passed over.
There’s a lot of activity behind the scenes and after hours at your local supermarket. Employees strip the shelves of brown bananas, opened boxes, broken jars, and stale muffins. They take the past-peak quality produce and meats to the deli or the salad bar and recycle them into prepared foods. They also remove packaged foods approaching their expiration dates—still perfectly good, but who’s going to buy a 5-pound block of cheese with 3 days left?
The good news is that more food than ever is finding a second life.
Wholesalers and supermarket chains have set up reclamation centers that operate as clearing houses for products considered unsaleable by the stores. The centers are filled with Christmas cookies in January, Valentine’s chocolate in March, and a year-round assortment of products that are nearing their sell-by dates or have packaging that has since been updated by the manufacturer. Much of it is shipped off to dollar stores and discount grocers, two categories that have become important to the food chain in our current economic state. There you’ll find an ever-changing assortment of foods—items discontinued by manufacturers, unfamiliar regional brands, foods labelled for export, and plenty of familiar and even high-end products all offered at highly discounted prices.
Food banks are another outlet for unsaleables, and most supermarket chains and reclamation centers participate in some sort of hunger relief program. The passage of the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act encourages participation by protecting the stores and distributors from criminal or civil liability around issues of food safety. The FDA also enthusiastically supports the practice and has even emphasized that other than baby food and formula, most food expiration dates refer to the point when a product’s taste, texture, color, or nutritional benefits start to deteriorate rather than the point when you need to worry about the product’s safety.
Americans waste a lot of food—more than 40% of all we produce. According to the The Natural Resources Defense Council if we wasted just 5 percent less food, it would be enough to feed 4 million Americans; 20 percent less waste would feed 25 million. This is indefensible at a time when both food prices and the number of Americans without enough to eat continue to rise.
On his Wasted Food website, Joanathan Bloom has a lot to say about food waste and what we can do about it.
AlterNet grades the food waste handling of Wal-Mart, Safeway, and other top grocery chains.