Pamela Riemenschneider, Retail Editor
Pamela Riemenschneider, Retail Editor

Having watched produce clerks cull displays on many occasions, I’ve seen firsthand how much edible — but not saleable — produce goes to waste from the average grocery store.

The latest estimates say we waste as much as 40% of our food.

While many retailers are great at bagging up and marking down cosmetically imperfect produce for quick sale, not all of it finds a home and not every retailer’s policy allows for it.

I’ve seen mobs of customers surrounding the markdowns at the Berkeley Bowl in Berkeley, Calif.

Their thrifty, produce-savvy shoppers flock to the selection of high-quality fruits and vegetables slightly past their prime, with the glee of a bargain hunter at Best Buy on Black Friday.

Not much goes to waste around there. One shopper even told me the banged-up looking mushrooms are more flavorful than the pretty ones on display.

Again, that’s the mark of a savvy mushroom consumer.

But then I think of the time I watched a clerk at Target in North Austin, Texas, roll around what looked like a miniature Dumpster and throw away half a wet rack of produce that I’d seen a customer shop just minutes before.

Would that customer be dismayed to learn the shrink-wrapped, dated bell pepper she just picked up was scheduled for the garbage?

I suspect the average shopper wouldn’t be thrilled to learn she just bought something that could have been garbage a few minutes later.

So, when I heard about former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch planning to glean expired or nearly expired food from retailers to repurpose into inexpensive meals, I wondered how it’s all going to work out.

I’ve been to see hunger relief organizations, like the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Houston Food Bank, who have pretty elaborate systems set up with local produce distributors and retailers to receive distressed or unsold produce, glean it and get it out to those in need.

This requires a quick turnaround, adequate facilities and an army of volunteers.

Rauch’s plan includes picking up produce and other foods from retailers and cooking meals to turn around and distribute through a retail outlet called the Daily Table. It’s unclear what, if any, the charge will be for meals.  

“We’re talking about taking and recovering food,” Rauch told National Public Radio.

“Most of what we offer will be fruits and vegetables that have a use-by date on it that’ll be several days out.”

Rauch said consumers often confuse sell-by dates, thinking food must be thrown away if not consumed by this date.

A recent Harvard study even suggested removing or making sell-by dates less visible from consumer packaging as a way to reduce food waste and instead replace them with a dating system not based on quality but on safety.

And that brings me to the elephant in the room.

Retailers don’t just remove expired or distressed food just because it’s ugly. The food banks I’ve visited don’t take food past its expiration or sell-by date for liability reasons.

While there are many out there who are perfectly sanguine about eating food others have thrown out — “freegans,” I believe they’re called — when you take it into a retail environment, it’s a whole different ballgame.

I wonder what retailer will stick their neck out on this and risk a lawsuit should a foodborne illness occur.

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