Why you should care
Because one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
After snaking through aisle after aisle with your cart, you finally find the holy grail and pluck that bag of stale Doritos from a shelf for tomorrow’s lunch. Don’t forget the bruised apples and carton of sour milk. Delish, right?
If your local Macy’s has a clearance rack for unwanted clothes, then Walmart should have a dedicated aisle for expired foods. Picture overripe bananas, rock-hard baguettes and old canned peaches all up for grabs at significantly lower prices than what you’d find elsewhere — just be sure to avoid green fuzz. Sound hard to stomach? Well, consider the heaps of perfectly palatable grub ending up in our garbage cans and trash bins. About one-third of the world’s bounty of food winds up getting tossed, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. In the U.S., that’s $160 billion worth of wasted food, per the Department of Agriculture.
It doesn’t help that the array of sell-by, use-by and best-by dates can be baffling, says Robert Brackett, a professor of food science at Illinois Institute of Technology. Such labels usually indicate when a food’s peak flavor and freshness will start to wane, not when the food will perish or become poisonous. That means many products like milk, eggs and poultry are safe to consume days after the indicated date. Yet most grocery stores continue to chuck billions of pounds of edible food for liability reasons, even though the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t explicitly ban the sale of expired products.
A clearance aisle for expired foods wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. Some European countries have already enacted legislation to curb the problem of food waste. France, for instance, mandates that stores donate unsold food to charities, and bans them from throwing away any food; this year, Denmark opened the country’s first salvage supermarket stocked with unloved foods at bargain-basement prices. Last year, former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch opened up a “near-expired” grocery store in Boston, and mom-and-pop shops like Massachusetts’ Barn Grocery and Texas’ AAA Freight Salvage Sales have followed suit. Why shouldn’t chains like Target or Carrefour take the lead? They could help end hunger, says Arash Derambarsh, a city councilor in France campaigning against food waste.
Of course, not everyone will leap at the chance to munch on moldy fruit or consume cottage cheese that’s been languishing in a fridge. Health issues abound too. Expired foods can breed bacteria and cause food poisoning — not something the Department of Health and Human Services will get behind anytime soon. Plus, a class issue might arise: People whose wallets are thin would bear the brunt of higher health risks from buying food that’s cheaper but not exactly up to snuff.
Yet in a world where 1 in 8 people goes to bed hungry, a day-old onion probably wouldn’t hurt anyone. Waste not, want not — we might as well enjoy the food before the mold and rats get to it.