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Trader Joe's Ex-President To Turn Expired Food Into Cheap Meals (npr.org)
117 points by mdturnerphys on Sept 22, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments



With the exception of infant formula, the laws that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administers do not preclude the sale of food that is past the expiration date indicated on the label. FDA does not require food firms to place "expired by", "use by" or "best before" dates on food products. This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.

A principle of U.S. food law is that foods in U.S. commerce must be wholesome and fit for consumption. A "best by", "use by" or expiration date does not relieve a firm from this obligation. A product that is dangerous to consumers would be subject to potential action by FDA to remove it from commerce regardless of any date printed on a label.

Source: http://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/transparency/basics/ucm210073.ht...


The FDA may not require a sell by date, but other governing bodies might. There has been an ongoing dispute over sell by dates stamped on milk in Montana. Montana requires that the sell by date be set to 12 days after pasteurization.

http://m.billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana...


This is news to me. Having worked for Safeway for many years, we held to those dates religiously.


It's like that was because it wouldn't be good to have customers see "expired" food on your shelves. As a customer, I wouldn't buy food which has gone past the expiration date. Sure, it could be fine to consume but I'd rather purchase food on that's well ahead of the expiration date. Especially since I may not cook/eat the food until a day or so later.


They usually are all over the world.

But some interesting economics starts becoming apparent when packaged food products approach the last 1/3rd or 1/4th of their shelf life. For e.g.

- near-expiry food products being exported from developed countries to developing ones (where they still command a premium over local products). I've found entire shelves of imported food products just months away from expiry (out of a total shelf life of, say, 2 years)

- re-badging of expiry dates/lots by unscrupulous importers

- 2 for 1 offers in supermarkets to liquidate near-expiry stock


Here in the UK it's illegal to sell food after the "use by" date and every so often someone gets in trouble for it. ("Best before" dates, on the other hand, are advisory.)


I think what most of the comments here seem to be missing is that (what I think is being said) he is takin on the fast food market in under-privileged areas where finding healthy food is a challenge. I think this is the case because the interview says they will cook the food for the patrons, and that he'll be serving the inner city areas not currently served.

Many of the people living in the area dine on fast food because it is incredibly cheap. "Real" food a"can't compete at this price. However, maybe post sell by date foods can.

The challenge is likely to be one of marketing, as it won't be difficult for the fast food chains to label the newcomer as selling rotten food.


Not to downplay the good work he's doing, but both of those things (selling expired food and giving it away) are both pretty common. There are discount stores who specialize in expired food.


Yeah, it's nothing too novel. It sounds to me like he wants to take over a chunk of that market, by providing a large-scale solution that competes with all the small vendors. This article is mostly a promotional piece.


The novel part is that a business person with prior success on a large scale is doing it. Hardly anything is actually novel.


It's not really "expired" food. The sell-by date is just an indicator of when the item begins to go slightly stale. In the case of foodstuffs like fruit and milk, there are expiry dates and it's best NOT to eat past that expiry date.


Expired milk can be used to make pancakes! See also http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/dont-be-so-quick-to-throw-o...


It is great to see an entrepreneur tackling an issue that will benefit the world (in a huge way) vs tackling an issue that will make someone build wealth for themselves.


I worked at TJ's as a teenager and they gave away the expired bread to a homeless shelter.


I've definitely seen distinctly TJ products at food banks. Meat, canned goods, etc.


I've always wondered where the products go when they are past their expiry date. They don't suddenly go bad at the second expiry date passes... Are they just thrown out? Sold to discount stores? Sent to local homeless shelter? It it legal to give expired products to anyone? Does it expose one to liability?


'Sell by' dates are earlier than when fresh produce can be expected to become bad. Cooks can examine the fresh produce and decide if they should cook it or not. Tinned or dry goods might be harder to judge. I imagine the liability drops down to the person preparing food in a shelter or soup kitchen.

UK: many shops sell off food at half or third price when it hits sell-by. They put it in bins/special fridge areas and they have yellow 'BUY NOW' stickers on, and some products have a warning like 'use today'.

I know of cafes that give away their expired sandwiches on the day and hour of expiry. So when given away, it was fine.


I have always felt bad about fresh produce going to waste in my fridge.Between my buying the produce and it going bad, there is always a point where I know I am not going to be able to use this stuff and in 2-3 days it will be unusable. I have looked for services in my area where I could take these items to. Something like soup kitchens who can then incorporate them into their cooking. But all the organizations I found took only canned goods and prepared food from large scale organizations like restaurants.

I had even thought it would be a great program for a charity register homes that are willing to give away soon-to-go-bad food. Then have volunteers stop by these homes on a predetermined schedule (once a week or so) to stop by and collect anything that the home might want to donate.


I had a crazy friend who ate for years out of Trader Joe's garbage cans. One day a cops were called. After, that he still went back, but a lock was put on the garbage.


There's nothing crazy about that. I've known lots of people who dumpster-dive. A college roommate of mine lived on nothing but free and dumpster-dived food for several months when he was broke. Even when he had money he liked to do it and would bring back vegetables to share. One time we feasted for weeks on a huge grocery bag full of (normally expensive) avocados, eating around the bad spots... at least ¾ of it was good.

If you think it's crazy, I'm gonna guess your broke college-kid days (if you had them) are long behind you. :)


But I guess dumpster is still in private property and owners can still kick anyone out of the dumpster area for trespassing. Cops could be called for that instead of say for "theft"


I can understand why they put the lock though. If he eats something and goes ill and then hires a lawyer, the lawyer would be in the position to claim millions in damages from TJ because they did not ensure hazardous waste products weren't "laying around on the street instead of being properly stored". Given that lawsuits with much less merit succeeded, who needs those problems?


I think it was more to discourage people from digging through and maybe leaving a mess (not necessarily the person in the story).

It's true that there have been cases where someone is successfully sued in this manner; the source of the danger (which could be food or a uncovered hole in the ground that someone falls into) is known as an 'attractive nuisance', ie something dangerous that is also irresistible. However, that's usually only successful in cases where children or animals are drawn towards the attractive nuisance because they lack better judgment. It would be hard for an adult to persuade a jury that he couldn't anticipate the risks of eating food from a garbage can.

IANAL, didn't do a review of AN cases, TINLA.


my acronym research reveals: AN = Absolutely No, TINLA = This Is Not Legal Advice.


AN is "attractive nuisance"


Dumpster diving for food has apparently become a whole ideology now, Freeganism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeganism

In their own words: "[Freegans] embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed."


I HATE this. I previously shopped at Trader Joe's with confidence - I knew I wasn't being gouged on price, so I generally ignored prices. I knew the food was good, so I could turn my brain off and just buy whatever I fancied. However, maybe 7 months ago, I started to notice that I was buying expired or nearly expired things from Trader Joes - bread that would go bad the next day (got mouldy), cheese with mold, etc. It was super irritating, and I would never remember to return those things so I'd wind up eating the cost.

I eventually realized that for perishable goods, they put the new stuff in the back of the shelves, so now I just head for the back of the shelf when I need to buy perishables there. This sucks for me, since buying at TJs used to be a stress-free experience, and now I check the 'use-by' dates on everything.

I actually flirted with shopping at Walmart (the one on San Antonio), but even though the prices are lower, the checkout lines are crazy at peak times, which is when I shop.

I also checked out Safeway, but they do a pricing technique that I call "Price Warfare". They randomly advertise products on heavy discount, and get you to incorporate those products as defaults in your shopping habits, then they switch their discounts to other products. This means that I've wound up paying $7 for basic icecream (which usually costs around $3:50). They also like to prominently display expensive items and hide their cheaper substitutes. This is most visible in their produce section - if you go in looking for grapes and without your senses about you, you'll pick up organic grapes by default. It also means that shopping at Safeway is mentally exhausting, since I've got to recalculate the 'best' prices on everything I buy every time I go there - so I avoid it now. <end rant>


> I eventually realized that for perishable goods, they put the new stuff in the back of the shelves, so now I just head for the back of the shelf when I need to buy perishables there. This sucks for me, since buying at TJs used to be a stress-free experience, and now I check the 'use-by' dates on everything.

I just wanted to mention that this is a standard practice called rotation. After all, putting new product in front would result in wastage of the older product. Products are supposed to be culled on their sell-by (not expiration) date, and it's unfortunate that you got some bad groceries, but they didn't do anything unusual or shady.

Similarly, Safeway's practices are fairly standard amongst grocery stores, though it's a little annoying. Best to follow the sale circulars and keep your wits about you.


That would be totally fine if this was Safeway or somewhere else that isn't selling fresh goods that go bad quickly. This isn't the case for things like bread and cheese at Trader Joe's - those things go bad just after their sell by dates. I'd agree that it wasn't unusual or shady if it wasn't a significant departure from their standard practices - I've shopped at TJs for years, and this change is fairly recent.

The Safeway experience is agonizing, though I'm sure it must be profitable for them at least in the short term. I just avoid them now, even though they have things I just can't find at TJs.


Yep, just look at milk. The newer milk is always in the back. If the expiration dates are too short and you won't be able to drink it in time, just look for ones towards the back and get those instead. I generally don't care though as long as the expiration isn't within a week.


Hackers new tip: Buy lactose-free milk and it will stay good for much longer than regular milk.

I don't consume a lot of milk, and I was getting tired of buying a half-gallon and having go bad two weeks later after I had only consumed 1/4 of it.

Lactose-free milk stay good for a long-time. Most of the time when I check, the best-before date is at least 6 weeks into the future. I've never had the milk go bad even if I've had it for 8 weeks. I'm not lactose intolerant BTW.

The only drawback is that the milk definitely tastes sweeter than regular milk. I'm used to it by now, but I'm sure some people would find it disagreeable.

I'm not sure why it lasts so long, even though there is no lactose in it, there is plenty of other sugars in it. Lactose-free milk is made by using enzymes to split the lactose into galactose and glucose. It tastes sweeter because both of the sugars have a higher perceived sweetness than lactose on a weight basis.


It's because lactose-free milk (or at least the Lactaid brand that I see my roommate drink) is treated at higher temperatures. You can find regular milk that has gone through the same treatment labeled as UHT or ultra-pasteurized, like the Horizon Organic brand and another I've seen at Costco as shelf stable juicebox form factor milk drinks (UHT coincidentally removes the refrigeration requirement too if stored in an appropriate container).

No need to pay extra for the lactose-free variant if you don't really need it and the plain UHT-treated milk is cheaper :)


Wouldn't the benefits of ultra-pasteurization go out the window once you open the package, thereby contaminating the milk?


There was this Mythbusters episode (pyramids preserving foods) where they sliced an apple in half. The one half rotted fairly quickly at room temperature the other was fine.

Brief investigation showed that there was difference in the initial contamination of the two halves and the results observed.

Modern kitchen and fridge are fairly clean places unless you are a movie bachelor. So opening a milk bottle and pouring a glass won't contaminate too much. And at 4 degrees there is not much breeding activity in bacteria anyway.


Actually, they didn't appear to investigate the cause at all - they just assumed one cut surface must have been contaminated more than the other and changed the experiment to remove the cut surface altogether. Since the mold on the non-pyramid apple only survived on the cut surface, not cutting the apples made sure no mold grew on any of them, and all bar one of the apples (the one from the cube) was perfectly preserved at the end of the experiment.

Was kind of annoying actually; the Mythbusters got so pissed off that their experiment appeared to show pyramids working that they set up their next test in such a way it'd give the same result regardless of whether pyramids or contamination had caused one apple to rot faster before, then held it up as proof pyramids were bunk. While it's really unlikely pyramids can magically preserve food, they should still have been honest and fair in their testing.


Regular milk spoils much faster after you open it though. Everything that I can find on the web suggests that UHT milk expires just as fast as regular milk after opening.


Well, the milk fridges are also loaded from behind - unlike regular shelves. So with milk at least it makes sense that the newer stuff would start at the back of the row.


I generally agree with you - shopping at TJs is a fairly low-BS experience. But I feel that putting less fresh stuff in front is just common sense - its just a a FIFO buffer.


FIFO is common at many stores.

I mostly shop at a handful of local stores, one in business for around 100 years, the other around 40 now. The younger of the two is more "hippy" (for lack of a better term) and has had many expired products on the shelf I've had to point out/return (when I wasn't paying attention). The older, not so much. I don't shop at the local Safeway -- a wholly different issue.

A lot of stores go with the FIFO approach, but some staff don't necessarily pay attention. In other cases, the vendor rents space and is responsible for stocking their own shelves...this happened to me recently...juice 2 weeks past due (didn't check when purchased, returned an hour later) -- store honored the return, but mentioned it was the vendor's responsibility.


What an absurd way for the store to put it. "Yeah, we don't look after the sell by dates, but shop here anyway."

(It's perfectly fine for the store to rely on the vendor to stock their products, it's silly for the store to try to communicate to a customer that they aren't still responsible...)


I'd agree with you, if the buffer had a sensible cutoff. The cutoff is currently "tomorrow" - so you'll buy stuff who's useby date is before you've even opened it. Sucks.


You are confusing sell by and use by. Despite what it says, the date on the shelf is almost always sell by.


> I HATE this. I previously shopped at Trader Joe's with confidence

Um, this has NOTHING to do with Trader Joe's! Is it too much to even read the title? Never mind the actual article?


I read the article. You need to read my comment.

It's about the fact that food often DOES go bad by the sell-by date, and that Trader Joe - where this guy got his experience - has changed their policies to aggressively push older, effectively near-expired goods on customers. That's what I hate, and it's pretty relevant.


It still has nothing to do with this. If they changed policies it has nothing to do with him.

And his idea of using old food has nothing to do with their policies.

You are combining two unrelated things.


>I eventually realized that for perishable goods, they put the new stuff in the back of the shelves, so now I just head for the back of the shelf when I need to buy perishables there. <

This is standard practice at grocery stores to put freshest food at the back and soonest to expire in the front. No reason to hate on TJ's on that point.


It's called "rotation" and yes it's something grocery store managers struggle to get their lazy employees to keep doing.


Interesting... a few months ago I noticed exactly the same thing. I've begun walking a half mile further a few times a week to a Safeway rather than go to the Trader Joes two blocks from my home because of this. (I refuse to use store club cards, so I don't encounter the trouble you have with them).

I actually prefer some trader joe's branded food to the alternatives, but it isn't worth it to go there. Food from other stores simply lasts longer, which is essential when you are buying for just yourself.


Exactly. Most people aren't realizing that my frustration is with the extremes of the rotation - food shouldn't be going bad/ have a use-by date that is the day after you buy it.

Trader Joe's obviously has had a significant change of policy recently to reduce losses to perishables, and it's foisting those losses on customers. I hate it.


> I eventually realized that for perishable goods, they put the new stuff in the back of the shelves

I can't imagine this is a new practice at Trader Joe's, it's an industry standard, and common sense quite frankly.

I'm very interested in what you consider proper practice should be with perishable foods (or what you think they used to do)? It almost sounds like you think they used to throw all perishables away that didn't sell on the first day and restock everything fresh nightly.


Maybe I'm crazy, but I always thought that Trader Joes just bought their food from low cost countries and cheap manufacturers and then sold it for much higher prices, but with cool labels and within a fun atmosphere. I would never trust Trader Joes food, personally.


Trader Joe's is the American version of Aldi. Almost all the products are store brand so that they can offer lower prices. Plus the stores don't have nearly the same number of SKUs as other competitors.

Why wouldn't you trust it? Do you not trust grocery stores in general?


There are Aldi in America too, and I don't trust them either. Their produce, at least at the locations I have been to, is really sketchy.


Not sure how a LIFO queue would possibly work whatsoever for perishable goods.


Soylent Green will help more.


This will go on until an adorable child dies and everyone--even the aunt that has never seen the child--sues


I'm reminded of an experience I had at a deli. I ordered matzo ball soup. The cup of soup I got had an expiry tag from 2 weeks prior in it. I still ate it. I lived. I can't say that I was happy about it though.


How is this a "good thing" ?

Take something they rightfully have to give away and instead make profit from it.

I already see grocers giving out tons of food to the local food bank, if they can convince governments to let them profit from it, that is one more path against poverty taken away by corporate entities.

Another way to eliminate waste would be to price the product lower?

If a regional grocery throws away tons of bananas each week, why not make the bananas half the price and run out of bananas each week?


Btw - you mention grocers giving tons of food, is actually not true. It's a very slow process, taking a way too long to become a popular trend. Hopefully with this latest story and initiative that other large/med/small grocers jump on board.

The poor/needy in the US are eating fast food more and more, as they can't afford groceries, with high costs for meat, vegetables and milk all rising. I'm excited to see how this program is launched and copied.


Fast food is not a matter of being cheaper than groceries, it is a matter of no grocery stores in walking distance of the poor, but the 7/11 or McDonalds is.

Fast food is far more expensive than groceries. I haven't eaten at a fast food place (or any other restaurant for that matter) in a couple of decades.


Also, not everyone has properly-equipped kitchens or the time to cook, and in fact there are some assholes who think anyone who does have basic kitchen equipment shouldn't be allowed to call themselves poor. (Remember that infamous Fox News slide implying most "poor" people weren't because they had fridges? Which is, really, fairly fundamental to being able to cook for yourself.)




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