Mark Smith, 3, and his sister Nevaeh Smith, 2, shop with their great-grandmother Mary Houchins at B&E Salvage grocery. / Amber Sigman/Special to The C-J
OKOLONA, Ky. -- Tammy and Troy Eversole paid 33 cents apiece for Jack Link beef jerky at the B&E Salvage grocery last Wednesday morning - a bargain compared to the 83-cent price tag for the same product at Wal-Mart.
The Eversoles' cheaper jerky was slightly out of date, stamped with "Best Before March 19," but the couple said they don't mind a snack that is slightly tougher on the tooth.
Like the Eversoles, a growing number of consumers are seeking out packaged food that is close to or just past expiration, or discarded by major retailers due to slightly damaged packaging. While many who buy such food are pressed for cash and looking for a deal, others are concerned that good food is being wasted.
As a result, more dated or dented stock is entering the mainstream, increasingly sold by secondhand retailers like B&E Salvage, or distributed by food banks.
"When I was in the service we would eat MREs that sat on the shelf for five, six or seven years," Troy Eversole, an Army veteran, said as he bent each beef stick at B&E to make sure it was pliable enough for chewing. "This is good for anybody."
According to a study last fall by the National Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic, up to 40 percent of food produced in the United States goes to waste, largely caused by confusion over expiration labels and fear that food inside could be unsafe.
"There is so much confusion; people think they are getting unsafe food and they are really outraged about it," said Emily Leib, a Harvard Law School professor and deputy director of the university's Center for Health Law & Policy Innovation, which co-sponsored the study titled The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America.
According to Leib, only a tiny percentage of processed food can be a health hazard after an expiration date due to possible listeria contamination, a bacteria that can be present in some cheese and dairy products, deli meats and deli salads.
Otherwise, "The dates are not a safety issue. There has not been a single instance of foodborne illness linked to someone eating a food after a date," she said, adding that "we need to find a way to standardize these labels, reduce waste and consumer confusion.
Experts say raising awareness about older packaged food can steer more of it to tables instead of landfills, which is increasingly important because an estimated one in six households in the United States struggle to put food on the table, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Use your senses
Budget-savvy consumers say they rely on experience, taste and instinct as they purchase dated food.
"You've got to be selective," said retired car salesman and self-described penny pincher Jim Marino, who was shopping recently at B&E Salvage. "They found honey in King Tut's tomb, so I know the honey I buy here is always good. I've bought coffee here, and oatmeal, and beans ... stuff that has a shelf life."
The Dare to Care Food Bank, which distributes food to 250 agencies and nonprofit organizations in greater Louisville and accepts food close to expiration, or newly expired, tries to help consumers understand that the food is safe.
"The best test for safety are your own senses, your eyes and your nose," said Stan Siegwald, Dare to Care Food Bank spokesman. "We are having more conversations about food waste. If there is any error today, we are disposing of more than we need to," Siegwald said. "It is safe but our consumers sometimes see it as a throwaway."
Homemaker Sue Millay, 69, said she carefully inspects packaging and dates before purchasing.
"I am pretty picky," said Millay, adding that she spends $50 weekly on food for herself and her husband by shopping discount grocery retailers like B&E. "If it isn't too expired, I will buy it."
With a handful of exceptions, including baby formula and over-the-counter medication, the federal government does not regulate expiration dates, "best before" or "use by" information manufacturers print on packaging, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
That governance is left to states, which largely leave the marketplace open to manufacturers' discretion. The Harvard study found that Kentucky, for example, only regulates past-date sale of milk, other dairy products and shellfish. Indiana has no state regulation governing the sale of expired food, the study reported.
The Louisville Metro Health Department regularly inspects stores and orders retailers to pull from shelves dairy products past their due date and any food that is leaking, visibly spoiled or with broken packaging that subjects the product inside to microbial exposure, said department spokesman David Langdon.
Otherwise, safely sealed foods, even canned goods with slight dents, are considered safe, he said.
"It might not taste as good, but people can buy it," Langdon said.
Major retailers say their shelf-stable food that is near or just past expiration is safe for consumption, but they maintain a policy of culling in-store stock to abide by manufacturers' labels.
Kroger, for example, discounts food approaching expiration. It then donates or sells expired food to wholesale buyers, company spokesman Tim McGurk said.
"If an item does reach the sell-by date, it is removed from our shelves and won't be sold to our customers," McGurk said. "Since many items do remain safe and healthy for consumption well beyond the sell-by date, we donate many of the items to our local food bank while some other items are sold to salvage dealers."
At Wal-Mart, "food that is donated through our programs is pulled from shelves three to five days prior to "sell-by" dates and is absolutely safe for consumption," spokesman Kevin Gardner said. "Safety is our No. 1 priority and we would never distribute food that we wouldn't deliver to our own families."
Earlier this month, BJ's Wholesale Club, based in Westborough, Mass., announced plans to become the first big box wholesale retailer to commit to donating "unsold but still wholesome and nutritious produce, meat poultry, fish and dairy to food banks and local agencies in its sales areas," in response to a call to reduce food waste by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Wasted food - a category that includes newly expired food or goods with slightly damaged packaging - is an environmental threat, BJ's and the EPA said in an Aug. 19 press release about the federal agency's "Food Recovery Challenge" to retailers.
"Food waste contributes to approximately 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions," said Bill Peters, BJ's assistant vice president of Safety Regulatory Compliance. Americans waste more than 36 million tons of food annually, 96 percent of which ends up in landfills or incinerators, the EPA said in the release.
Early last year, Doug Rauch, the former president of the Trader Joe's grocery chain, announced plans to take still-edible food near or past its sell-by date and sell it in a store and restaurant concept in Boston. Products sold by the Daily Table store will be donated by large chain retailers and discounted 50 percent to 70 percent off retail, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which fueled Rauch's Urban Food Initiative with a $150,000 grant last December.
In the Louisville area, people might find these products at flea markets or sold by vendors inside one of 18 Peddlers Mall locations. Last year, the Clarksville Peddlers Mall began selling groceries that were near expiration or had slightly damaged packaging, company founder and CEO John George said.
George said he's selling a truckload of food a month. The truckload of food would cost $40,000 if it was fresh from the factory, but George said he successfully bids between $10,000 to $17,000 per truck from a broker in Tennessee for goods that are close to expired, or otherwise pulled from major retailers' shelves. His profits, he added, range from 15 percent to 50 percent.
"Everybody likes cereal if they can get it for half," George said.
(Contributing: Associated Press)
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