IN 2016, the world’s first supermarket selling expired food opens in Copenhagen, aiming to cut down the 700,000 metric tonnes of food waste in Denmark.
WeFood sells expired food and food rejected by other grocers for 30% to 50% cheaper than market price. At a time when food waste, zero hunger and global warming are on every country’s agenda, the opening generated a global buzz. WeFood is now even listed on VisitCopenhagen’s website.
Selling food past its best before date is however not a radical new idea invented by the Danes. The Americans have been running salvage food stores and discount groceries way before WeFood. A 2014 article in modernfarmer.com estimated that there were at least 500 salvage groceries nationwide. It is thought to have started in the ever-thrifty Amish community.
Some of these stores have been around for 50 years and they are in every state.
This thriving surplus food store scene is possible because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not ban the sale of food past its expiration date. In fact, food products do not even need to have an expiry date – the exception is infant formula.
“Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law,” its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) website states. Manufacturers however can provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality.
The FDA takes a rather relaxed approach to the various product expiry terms. In its newsletter Food Facts, it states:
• A Sell by date indicates that a product should not be sold after that date if the buyer is to have it at its best quality.
• A Use by or Best by date is the maker’s estimate of how long a product will keep at its best quality.
“They are quality dates only, not safety dates. If stored properly, a food product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality after its Use by or Best by date,” it says.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates food loss and waste at 30% of the food supply – lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels. It acknowledges that confusion about themeaning of dates displayed on labels is a reason why some consumers and retailers throw away wholesome food.
To reduce consumer confusion and wasted food, FSIS recommends that food manufacturers and retailers that apply product dating use a “Best if used by” date as research shows that this phrase conveys to consumers that the product will be of best quality if used by the date shown, but still safe to eat after the date.
“Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled “Best if used by” date, it explains.
In stark contrast, it is an offence to sell food beyond its expiry date in Malaysia.
Act 281 Section 14 of the Food Act 1983 prohibits the sale of food “not of the nature, substance and quality demanded” and sale of expired food falls under this. Upon conviction offenders face a stiff jail term up to five years or a fine, or both.
Also, the Food Regulations 1985 mandates that all food packaging must bear a date marking. Malaysians – with our love for simplification – tend to not make a distinction between the date marking terms allowed by the Regulations; “Expiry date”, “Use by”, “Consume by” and “Best before” are all taken to mean the same thing, that is, the expiry date. We’d rather be safe than sorry. This simplified, ultra-safe, kiasu (and kiasi) approach however may cause more food waste.
(Note that these are all terms that provide a protection guideline to consumers. The other terms provided by Codex Alimentarious, the UN body that sets international standards, like “Sell by” which is a guideline for retailers, are not officially used here.)
The Food Regulations defines “expiry date” in relation to a food product to mean “the date after which the food when kept in accordance with any storage conditions set out in the label of such food, may not retain the quality attributes normally expected by a consumer”.
In other words, an expired food product may still be safe to eat but its original nutritional values and taste may not be met. At any rate, it is illegal in Malaysia to trade in expired food products or donate them to charity.
This means that a lot of perfectly safe to eat food are fated to be sent to the municipal landfill and contributing to the waste problem when it could be channeled to feed the hungry, or for resale at discount food outlets.
Any supermarket, food retailer or supplier wishing to avoid wasting food must donate the food before they expire. This will result in a shorter retail shelf life for the products and the need for a complex stock management system, which no one wants to go into.
“I can donate expired food products to charity but not before the expiry date,” one food import company director said. “We are a business and not a charity. If the expired goods cannot be donated they will be disposed of.”
Another food supplier explained that most supermarkets in Malaysia will not bear the risk of having unsold expired stock. Hence, they only agree to carry food products they can return to supplier after the expiry date.
“About 90% of the food products we supply to supermarkets are done on such an arrangement. For a food supplier, the supermarket business is not really sustainable as we bear the burden of dealing with unsold and expired goods.”
Where do expired food go? Not to heaven for sure. The dumpsite option is hell and considered a last recourse. The options are for owners to consume them themselves – while it’s illegal to trade in expired food products, there’s no law against consuming expired food – or distribute them among family and friends but this option has its limits as many Malaysians are repulsed by and suspicious of expired food; donate to farmers as animal feed; or channeling to a composting facility – in that order.
Clearly, the authorities and stakeholders can work together to help eliminate food waste and avert an environmental disaster as the problem will only get bigger as cities grow unless measures are taken to check it.
A review of current food laws on food expiry dates can be a big step forward.
After all, an expiry date is an arbitrary best practice date set by the manufacturer and not an exact science.
Food for thought: if the expiry date on your can of sardines is today, is it safe to eat today and bad tomorrow? If you sell expired food in one country you are celebrated as a food hero but in another you can be thrown into jail.