According to Harvard University, 40% of the food produced in the United States is thrown away before it can be eaten. These include many foods close to or past their expiration dates, which go directly to the landfill without ever even being opened. Canada witnesses close to 60% food loss or wastes each year. The grocery industry alone is estimated to be one of the major contributors to 1.31 million tonnes of food waste. That’s the equivalent of the weight of more than 10 CN Tower! We need to clear up a major misconception about food shelf life before discussing expired food, namely, the notion that food after the expiration date is bad, this notion is not rigorous.
“Shelf life” is the period of time taken by the manufacturer to record and judge the changes in food quality. This is measured by measuring the sensory indicators, microbial indicators, physical and chemical indicators. And for the definition of the expiration date, the standards vary from country to country. Shelf life is not the same as the date of the food gone bad, but the manufacturer’s guarantee of the best quality(i.e. best taste) of the food.
Senior members of the American Society for Food Technology said that the general manufacturers in setting the expiry date will leave themselves enough “safety margin”, in this margin of food belongs to the “gray area”. From the point of view of the manufacturer’s interests, the expiry date is certainly not set on the day the food deteriorates, but the shortest possible period, because they are legally responsible for food safety during this period.
The Daily Mail, in conjunction with food safety experts, did a study on expired foods, including pasta, potatoes, bread, chocolate cake, sausages, cooked beef, raw chicken breast slices, and 12 other foods, which were left past their expiry dates and then examined for changes in taste, appearance, and texture. The results concluded that many foods in our lives can continue to be eaten even though they are beyond their expiration dates, while cooked foods that are more than two weeks past their expiration dates are not recommended.
Different countries view shelf life differently, Japanese set two different “shelf life”, one is for non-perishable food “appreciation period”, and the other is for perishable products “consumption period”. The “taste” and “safety” of the food are marked separately. The U.S. date label is similar, divided into two forms: “Best By” and “Use By”, which correspond to food that is resistant to storage and perishable. However, some large packages of food and beverages will also be marked with a third “Sell By” date, leaving room for consumer consumption and storage.
To prevent health risks, we discourage the consumption of expired food, but it is a shame that some food that is not expired is being wasted. Walmart was once exposed by netizens to remove much fresh food, seafood, desserts, drinks, and snacks from the shelves after 9:00 pm and throw them into trolleys to be pulled away and thrown away, not allowing customers to buy or take them away, which caused a lot of controversy at that time.
Unlike expired food, this kind of food that is about to expire but still within the expiry date is “grey zone food” (at least that’s what I called), which belongs to the scope of safe food and can be sold. Most of the “limited time special” that we see in grocery stores are “expired” foods. Generally speaking, the boundary of grey zone food varies with the length of shelf life. A box of cookies with a shelf life of 12 months, will be on sale 45 days before it expires, while milk with a shelf life of 21 days may be on sale only a week before it expires. The specific promotional price will also get lower and lower as the shelf life approaches.
After discovering that expired food is not actually a safety hazard, many supermarkets and e-commerce platforms have taken up the idea. European countries were the first to start the trend, a leftover supermarket called “A Food Waste Supermarket” in Leeds, England, cooperated with other local supermarkets to buy expired food and sell it, usually at very low prices. Online, the Netherlands “No Food Wasted” platform will notify users daily about major supermarkets’ expired specials, while “Too Good To Go” is dedicated to selling leftover ingredients at ultra-low prices after local restaurants open, and is widely acclaimed in France, the United States, and other countries.
The expired food market may seem to have a “bright” future, but there are still a very few people who are really keen to buy it, because the concept of “eating food that is about to expire is unhealthy and undignified”, and many people find it difficult to accept this and have a lot of criticism. In fact, there is no equation between buying expired food and poor financial ability. Just as some people are rich and still frugal, we should accept the existence of different lifestyles instead of falling into the trap of consumerism in pursuit of “decency”. Buying expired food is not necessarily because you don’t have the money, it could be to promote environmental protection and reduce food waste, it could be to enjoy the thrill of “bargain hunting”, or it could be simply to do a good deed.
Not to mention that after the plight of the pandemic, many people’s attitude towards consumption has changed. They are more concerned with value for money than saving face, and discounted food is an option for them to spend the least amount of money to satisfy their appetite. Although this emerging market may face many regulatory issues, such as confusion in the procurement channels, unscrupulous merchants change the date label, the sale and purchase of expired food is not a problem in itself, as long as eaten within the “before date” there are no safety risks.