Growing up, Daniel Quinn was taught to never waste food. So when a café he used to frequent in Kingston, Ont., emptied a fridge full of milk into the trash, simply because the date branded on the cartons had passed, he was appalled. “Gallons of something that I’d purchased that morning were just thrown out,” says the 21-year-old biology student, who had consumed a carton of the offending milk with no ill effects. The experience prompted him to create a Facebook group called “Expiry Dates are Just Numbers.” Quinn, who lives on a tight budget, says a blind adherence to “relatively arbitrary” timelines for when food can be consumed is wasteful and unnecessary. Instead, he trawls the aisles for discounts on items about to expire, and relies on his senses to judge when something’s gone off. “Food can last for a long time,” he says. “Living in Canada, especially in the winter, you can be very lenient with expiry dates.”
As the global economy limps toward recovery and consumers continue to sniff out savings, Quinn is not the only one questioning the premise of expiry dates. In the U.K., frugal shoppers have been flocking to websites offering outdated and short-dated pop, chips and cookies, at discounted rates. In January, Approvedfood.co.uk, which specializes in non-perishable items close to or just past their best-before dates, reported that sales in the last week of December were 500 per cent higher than in that period the year before. Copycat sites have crept up, including Foodbargains.co.uk, set up, according to its website, “to provide the bargain basement offers direct to the public.” While retailers of out-of-date products have yet to emerge in North America, anecdotal evidence suggests there’s demand. According to Approved Food founder Dan Cluderay, “It’s only a matter of time before somebody tries it.”
This willingness to push the limits of the dates branded on everything from cottage cheese to cans of soup doesn’t contradict the science. When it comes to expiry dates, which pertain to perishables like milk and meat, the Canada Food Inspection Agency requires manufacturers to meet certain safety and nutritional standards. But there is a big difference between these numbers, and best-before dates on shelf-stable items such as crackers and cookies. With milk and meat, manufacturing plants submit samples to smell, taste and lab tests. “There is some science behind those dates,” says Rick Holley, a food microbiology and food safety professor at the University of Manitoba. He would know. In the ’90s, he worked for a large dairy operation running such tests. “I’ve tasted so much rotten milk in my life it’s unbelievable,” he says. But, for products that are shelf-stable for more than 90 days—baked beans, chocolate bars—there are no formal regulations guiding best-before dates. It’s about food quality—freshness, look, taste—as opposed to safety. As such, says Holley, “it’s really a rough guess.”
For now, in Canada, those willing to disregard best-before dates have to know where to look. Though there is no law prohibiting the sale of out-of-date non-perishables, the stigma keeps traditional grocery stores from keeping these items on the shelves—even at a discount. In fact, once a product is within three months of its best-before date, most outfits will ship it back to the manufacturer, at which point it is donated to food banks, rendered into animal feed, or destroyed. As Paul Luz, warehouse manager for grocery chain Highland Farms, explains, “Our thing is cleanliness: fresh, fresh, fresh. So if we start reducing all these products, that defeats the purpose.” Even dollar stores are discriminating.
Your Dollar Store With More, which has over 140 locations across Canada, does offer some short-dated items, but it doesn’t sell out-of-date products because, says CEO Russell Meszaros, “We’re not a dirty little independent that’s going to sell anything they can get their hands on.”
Still, awareness is growing. StillTasty.com, which helps consumers decide whether to “keep it or toss it,” puts it this way: “Save money, eat better, help the environment.” Though Independent Living Canada, an NGO aimed at people living with disabilities, doesn’t officially recommend eating out-of-date items in its guide to healthy eating on a budget, it suggests buying day-old bread, and freezing yogourt that’s about to go off. And unofficially, says national program officer Amy Grumberg: “We’ll encourage [people] to open and smell it. If it smells or looks remotely funny, chuck it. But if it looks okay, give it a little taste.”