If you pay attention when you eat out at most American restaurants, it’s pretty hard not to notice the extreme wastefulness of the industry: baskets of untouched bread are tossed, supersized portions are left half-eaten, and objectionable orders are often trashed in favor of a completely new dish. While this type of waste is blatant and unapologetic, there are a host of other industries and establishments that arrive at the same ends by much subtler means.
One of these establishments is probably your neighborhood grocery store. Even as an increasing number of Americas are struggling to get by on food stamps and unemployment benefits, many grocery stores are dumping tons of perfectly good food into the trash bins. The culprit? A tiny date stamped on the packaging, indicating the expected “expiration” of the product.
Last month Mother Jones investigated this phenomenon and found that most stores are continually monitoring the items on their shelves and throwing them away between three and five days before the expiration date. Compounding the problem is the fact that much of the food prepared in the store—freshly baked bread, pasta and sandwich specials—is thrown out at the end of the day, as is perfectly edible produce that appears deformed, overripe or spotted. And the waste adds up: a 2010 study by the California Integrated Waste Management board revealed that each store throws out approximately 3,000 pounds of food a year.
The obvious solution would be to donate the products fit for consumption to charities and local food pantries, but there is a discouraging lack of effort to ensure this food gets to those who need it most. Food recovery groups are working to implement systems of pick up and distribution and to lobby for more stringent regulation of disposal practices, but there is still much work to be done.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the situation is that expiration dates do not necessarily indicate that the food is spoiled or inedible. Rather, the date generally indicates the optimal consumption time for the food, and proponents of consumer health and safety have seen to it that the dates are quite conservative.
So what can be done to stem the flow of food into the country’s landfills? First, consumers should stop relying so heavily on printed labels and start testing things for themselves: instead of tossing cottage cheese when the expiration date is passed, look at it, smell it, and taste it! Chances are that if the date is not that far passed it will be fine to eat. Second, concerned customers can talk to their grocery stores and find out where disposed food goes to; if it’s a dumpster then he or she can propose a better solution like a local food pantry or homeless shelter. Finally, producers and consumers should work together to create a system that is less wasteful and more creative with the food that we have. By focusing on properly managing the resources that we already have we will avoid costly procurement of resources we don’t need.