16 April 2014

The Dating Game 過期照食


I have a perverse household routine. Every few weeks, I will go through my kitchen cabinet looking for expired food. Canned tuna, tea bags and rice – items for which I had paid good money – will all go into the trash. Once I am done with that, I will move on to the refrigerator to weed out the proverbial bad apples: a half-dozen eggs, a bottle of chili sauce that I had used once or twice, a wedge of cheese still in its original sealed wrap. The purge is indiscriminate and my guilt palpable. I will start talking to the garbage can: “Sorry, “forgive me,” “I’m a terrible person. But there is nothing I can do: I am just doing what the white labels say.

What does that mean?


I know I am not alone. Each day we throw out food that we believe is past its prime, all because of that tiny, hard-to-read six-digit death sentence called the expiration date. But date labels are a modern mystery. For starters, the wording is confusing and inconsistent – no one knows whether “sell by,” “use by” and “best before” all mean the same thing. How much flexibility there is with the dates often plunge us into the metaphysical: Does the milk know to spoil at the stroke of midnight? Will time dilate if I move the chicken to the freezer? How can unopened wine go bad when it’s supposed to get better with age? We don’t know and we don’t want to take our chances. When in doubt, we toss it out.

According to the United Nations, over a billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted worldwide every year. In America, as much as 40% of all the food produced – worth US$165 billion annually – ends up in the landfill. A recent Harvard University study finds that a major driver of food waste is expiration date confusion. Over 90% of Americans prematurely throw away edible food because they misinterpret food dates. One in five consumers mistakes the date of manufacture (which is used by factories for record purposes) or the “sell by” date (which is used by retailers for inventory control) for the expiration date. The main culprit is the lack of government oversight. With the exception of baby formula, date labels are neither required by law nor regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Food waste is a global epidemic


Folks in Asia don’t fare much better either. In Hong Kong, for instance, the city produces 8,700 tonnes of solid waste every day, 40% of which is uneaten food. The problem is exacerbated by large supermarket chains that pull items off the shelves days before the sell-by date in the name of consumer protection. Friends of the Earth, a local watchdog, estimates that about a third of what stores throw out – around 30 tonnes daily – is still edible, an amount enough to feed over 48,000 three-member households for a day.  Worse, supermarket chains are known to destroy food that is close its expiration by shredding it or soaking it in chlorine to discourage waste-pickers from taking it home. They weren’t joking when they said there is no free lunch in Hong Kong.

To properly understand expiration dates, we have to go back to the 1970s when date labeling emerged as part of the consumer rights movement. The dates were introduced by the food industry – and adopted voluntarily by manufacturers – to convey freshness. They indicate the period within which a product is at its peak, when it looks and tastes the best. Just because the food is no longer in its prime, however, doesn’t make it unsafe to eat or even taste bad. In other words, expiration dates are about quality instead of safety or public health. But perhaps because we urbanites are so far removed from food production, we choose to believe otherwise. Little do we know that most food-related illnesses are caused by contamination during production and delivery – by pathogens such as E.Coli and salmonella – instead of the passage of time. It didn’t take long for food manufacturers to notice that confusion and paranoia can be very profitable. Over the years, they began to put an expiration date on every product, even things that last a very long time like vinegar, honey and salt. The logic is simple: the more food we throw away, the more money we spend on replenishing it.

Buy, buy, buy


Exactly how food manufacturers come with up these expiration dates is also a point of contention. Consumers assume that a team of experienced scientists in white lab coats is stationed at every factory to perform elaborate tests on food. They can’t be more wrong. According to the Natural Resources Defence Council, 80% of all expiration dates are guesswork. Most small- to medium-sized companies lack the resources to conduct proper studies and they simply pick a conservative date to avoid lawsuits. 

As for multinational giants like Kraft and Nestlé, they take food dating more seriously but the devil is in the details. When determining shelf life, they build in a safety cushion by assuming that their products will be handled by the most irresponsible consumer: those who let their milk sit on the kitchen counter for hours or leave their potato chips under direct sunlight. And why not? No one will complain – or even notice – if the expiration date turns out to be too short. That, combined with increased sales from premature disposals, make short-dating a win-win proposition for food companies.

That's what we think


That takes me back to my household routine. I have decided to kick my old habit and rely on my own judgment instead of blindly following the white labels. For milk, bread and raw meat, I now add a three-day grace period. Things like potato chips and candy bars get an extra month or two. For more shelf-stable items like canned food and condiments, I simply ignore the expiration dates and revert to the time-honoured smell test. After all, our five senses are our best tools to determine what’s safe to eat. Millennia of evolution have given the human species the instinct to tell good food from bad, the same ability on which our grandparents relied before there were supermarkets. Besides, isn’t that what we do when we buy undated produce from street vendors or at the farmers’ market?

The idea of ignoring expiration dates may be difficult for some to swallow. But one man’s discarded food can be another man’s meal. For the germaphobes among us, they can pack items like expired canned soups and instant noodles neatly in a box and leave it outside their backdoor. Someone – whether it is the garbage collector or an environmentally-conscious neighbour – will pick it up and decide for themselves whether it is good to eat. That’s the same concept as the dozens of so-called “expired supermarkets” in America that sell just-expired food at deeply discounted prices to low income families. 

Yet, the best way to play the dating game is by trimming. We can substantially reduce food waste simply by buying less, despite the temptation to shop in bulk to save a few bucks or avoid an extra trip to the supermarket. Doing that will not only reduce carbon emission from waste disposal, but also cut down our grocery bill. Food waste may be a first world problem, but it hardly requires a first world solution. 

Read also Part 1 of this article: The Hunger Game.

Win-win for both wallet and planet


_________________________

This article previously appeared in the April 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."


As printed in MANIFESTO


23 comments:

  1. Thanks for this article! You should write one on palm oil.

    Annukka

    ReplyDelete
  2. You are so right Jason.

    Anjali

    ReplyDelete
  3. Food waste is a crime against nature and an insult to those who can't afford meals.

    Jason

    ReplyDelete
  4. If only more people would stop and think about it. When I was growing up there were no expiry dates, only common sense. One should think about all the starving children and shop sensibly - for only what they need. I certainly am going to from now on after reading your article.

    Anjali

    ReplyDelete
  5. Precisely! We have completely forgotten our common sense and decided to blindly put our faith on food manufacturers who have a clear vested interest in short-dating all foods!

    Jason

    ReplyDelete
  6. BTW, I started a new habit on my trip to Shanghai this past weekend.

    My friends and I ordered too much food at a restaurant (as we often do) and we had quite a bit of leftover. We asked the server to pack the food up nicely. Instead of one of us taking the leftover home (we tend to leave it in the fridge and end up throwing it out), we gave it to a homeless person along with RMB10 -- so she wouldn't feel we didn't want to give her money.

    It's SO EASY to do and a total win-win proposition (reduce food waste and feed the needy). I will make it a point to continue my new habit in the future -- as well as stop over-ordering in the first place! Please consider doing the same!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely! Giving homeless food is a brilliant habit. Here here. Get the word out.

      Ray

      Delete
    2. It's really appreciated. We should follow to do the same. Thank you.

      Christine

      Delete
    3. Nice act of giving.

      Terry

      Delete
    4. I said to the homeless lady in my pigeon Mandarin: "I hope you find the food tasty." She gave me this huge smile I will never forget.

      Jason

      Delete
    5. That's a wonderful idea!!

      Jean

      Delete
    6. I used to do that - until one incident : when I gave away the packed food, the beggar threw the box back to me, yelling : "I don't need your pity." With every good intention, accidentally I hurt his pride. My 2 cents :Just be mindful when trying to do good.

      Virginia

      Delete
    7. Heartwarming! God bless you!

      Jannie

      Delete
    8. Virginia, I am aware of that risk. That's why I think it should be accompanied with a bit of money. That's the whole point of me giving the old lady RMB10, so she wouldn't feel insulted.

      Jason

      Delete
    9. Support!!!

      Michael

      Delete
    10. Nice! :-)

      Amar

      Delete
    11. I never like wasting food. It feels disrespectful to just throw it out.

      Arny

      Delete
    12. That's what an ex-colleague taught me to do too even in Hong Kong!

      Christine

      Delete
    13. It's good habit and a nice tact; it's sin to waste food. God bless!

      Michael

      Delete
  7. 我記得細細個的時候,媽媽已常常督促我和妹妹們唔好浪費食物,飯碗內的每一粒米都要吃得乾乾淨淨,否則將來便冇衣食,又話我地食得唔乾淨,第曰便會嫁個「豆皮鬼」!幸好自己都聽教聽話,家總有"啖"飯吃,睇怕都唔會嫁個「豆皮鬼」啩!未知今天啲「虎媽媽」會唔會咁樣教仔女呢?!

    幸好,今天的香港已進步不少,廚餘回收服務已做得不錯,如果食市餐飲業都唔需要參予這種服務的話,就更加好!

    我記得以前在加拿大讀書時,偶然會到唐人街吃飯,當時見到有些中國人將剩餘的食物包走,都感到有點奇怪,因為那個年代(80s),香港人都好少這樣做,最多盡量將食物吃清。將食物打包後拿走,感到好像有點「小家」,您知啦,中國人好要面嘛!原來在外國生活久了的中國人已有這種習慣,回想起來,確是一種好好的美德!現在的香港人已這樣做多了,未知我哋嘅「同胞」- 強國人會否有這樣的習慣呢?!

    Jean

    ReplyDelete
  8. We do consume more than we need in our daily diet. Obviously, we are eating too much every day and I do not like the idea of buffet.

    Priscilla

    ReplyDelete
  9. The expiry date printed on package does not mean we should throw it away the day after, we can still enjoy the food before it's going bad.

    Michael

    ReplyDelete
  10. Been doing that for a while especially giving a bottle of water or drink to those disabled paupers in the street during Summer. It's better than giving $ to them because it will only go straight to those people who control them.

    Phil

    ReplyDelete