How would you feel about eating expired food? So-called “garbage”? You probably do not find this notion particularly appealing.
Then again, does the fact that one-third of the world’s food goes to waste every year change your mind? What about the statistic that the United States alone generates 30% of the world’s waste (according to the United Nations Environment Program)? In case those do not change your mind, I’ll try one more time: Americans waste about 1 million pounds of stuff per year…per person. This includes food, clothes, books, etc.
How can we start to limit this waste? Besides recycling and composting, there must be something we can do to give refuse new life. Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, has an idea: he will soon open a market called “Daily Table” in Dorchester, Massachusetts, that will sell expired food at discounted prices. Some food will be prepared at the store, and some will be sold as-is, going beyond the standard format of an expired-food store that merely relocates food that has passed its expiration date to a new location.
As stated before, this is not a wholly original idea; there are already stores that sell expired food, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. Rauch says that his store is “about how to bring affordable nutrition to the underserved in our cities”. While this is an admirable—if not essential—goal, I think we should be getting those who do not need to buy deeply discounted food to want to buy it. Why should anyone buy food that is not as good as what they have the means to buy? To no longer contribute to waste—a problem that most of us can afford to be ignorant of.
According to CNN, more than 90% of Americans throw out food before it has gone bad, which begs the question, when is food actually not fit to be consumed? According to many nutrition experts, food that is a few days past its sell-by date is perfectly fit to be eaten. This is because the sell-by date is a guideline, not some perfectly specific prophetization of when a food can no longer be consumed. Expiration dates estimate how long food can maintain its taste and nutrients—not necessarily how long it will be edible for. Basically, many nutritionists are saying that we shouldn’t be taking food freshness quite as seriously as we do, because our stringent behavior may be creating more problems than solutions.
That being said, eating truly expired food can be dangerous. Although most food-borne illnesses come from contamination of various foods by pathogens like salmonella—not the age of the food—mold on food can cause nausea, dizziness, and headaches, and food that is actually expired can cause food poisoning or botulism, the latter of which can result in death due to respiratory failure.
So, what can we make of all this dizzying information? To start, we can learn more about the properties of what we buy, to figure out when a strawberry won’t be as delicious as it once was, and when it can actually make us sick. We should also learn the shelf lives of the foods in our cabinets, and remember that while chocolate can last for quite a while without posing health dangers, canned food past its prime can cause botulism. After all, we want humans to live as long as they can—why not ask the same of our food?