The Produce Project: Day 1–Packaged Waste

My first day of work in a supermarket produce department began at 8 a.m. Ten minutes into it, I was throwing away food.

They’d get to the orientation later, I was told, we had to “cull” all of the “out-of-code” products. They got me an apron and pointed me to the wall-length cold case of packaged produce. Basically, I had to pull all packages with a sell-by date of that day. I’ve written before about the difference between sell-by dates and use-by dates. Items are often good up to a week past the former, but here I was yanking packages from the shelf at 8:10 on the morning of their sell-by date.

I culled cut mushrooms, stir fry mix (cut peppers and onions), veggie trays with dip (crudités), watermelon chunks, pineapple chunks, a mix of pineapple, watermelon and cantaloupe and more. Based on their container weights, I tossed 24 pounds of fresh cut, Del Monte fruit that first morning. In addition, a few of the veggie trays had an “enjoy-by” date of four days from that day, but it’s sell-by date meant they must be pulled!

Not surprisingly, most of the stuff that I culled was pre-cut and pre-washed. When items are cut up, they oxidize and go bad quicker than if they were whole. Now, they don’t go bad as quickly as their sell-by dates indicate; none of the packages I took off the shelves were things I wouldn’t eat. But that phenomenon of faster-aging items produce is behind the cautious sell-by dates. In this case, convenience causes waste.

While I worked on the pre-cut and wrapped produce, a co-worker culled the loose stuff. When he was finished, his tray looked like a restaurant buffet. We both finished at about the same time and headed back to the produce room, where my boss was washing some lettuce. I asked him what I should do with my cart full of culled product.

“It all just goes in the dumpster,” he said. 

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