Sell-by Stuff II

Wasted Food reader Ed was curious about sell-by dates, so let’s talk a bit more about them. While it varies by store, most supermarkets pull items the night before or on the morning of the sell-by date. Lance Parchment, Whole Foods’ Southeast region prepared foods assistant coordinator told me they cull products the night before the sell-by date. Fortunately, they give these items to a homeless shelter. But that store won’t even put a prepared food item on the shelf unless it’s more than four days before the sell-by date. 

Most people I’ve spoken with agree that the dates are cautious. Some say they’re overly careful. But the threat of multi-million dollar law suits tends to make people do funny things. “They give a pretty generous window with the sell-by dates,” said Steve Keenan, supervisor at the Capitola, Calif., Trader Joe’s. “I’ve brought home out-of-code bread, and ten days later, it’s fine. It’s the lawyers—they’ve made everything difficult.”  

I will say that I’ve seen items go bad on or before their sell-by date. Food companies don’t enjoy wasting food. They do it because they’re afraid of being sued and because in many cases it is easier than not wasting (more on that another time).    

Contrastingly, I’ve also seen piles of bagged lettuce dumped at a California landfill because the product wouldn’t arrive at stores more than a week before their sell-by dates. And I’ve eaten plenty of food way past the sell-by date. 

One solution is to donate food that is edible, but not sellable. There are plenty of food recovery operations that will often pick up these items and distribute them to those less fortunate. 

Another compromise is to put items approaching their sell-by date on sale. I’ve seen local chains Earth Fare do this with milk and Harris Teeter with chicken sausages. Harris Teeter occasionally fills a discounted produce rack, which I applaud (and peruse). Food Lion does the same with ripe bananas–29 cents/lb and perfect for banana bread!    

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