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What Happens to Unsold Food in Supermarkets?

By Ferdi Vol
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If you are an avid shopper who at times wonders about what happens to unsold food in supermarkets, then you would be surprised to know the real truth behind it. What happens to these food and grocery items is not that simple to explain as many complexities are involved in handling these.

In easy words, a lot of unsold food gets thrown away as thrash in tons and billions each year. However, this takes place even if sometimes the food is edible because of the fear of large grocery chains being subjected to legal actions. Nonetheless, there are times when unsold foods are sold at discounts to employees, donated to food banks, homeless, or shelters.

There’s no doubt that to some extent there isn’t always proper handling of unsold food products just as all of us might be expecting. Why waste food when it can be just given away to poor people? If questions and concerns like these are lurking on your mind right now, I advise you to keep reading as I’ll dive into this subject further in great detail in this article.

What Kind of Food gets Thrown Away?

Any food that has acquired an acceptable trait to no longer be sold to customers reasonably is at most times completely thrown away. Some of these include

  • Damaged bags or boxed products
  • Contaminated Canned food
  • Leaked bottles
  • Spoiled meat or seafood
  • Moldy pastry and baked goods
  • Rotten fruits and vegetables
  • Foods that have expired over a 3-month period

In most of these cases, any food items that have developed an unhealthy trait of not being able to be consumed anymore and pose certain health risks, are simply thrown away.  Hence, to avoid sues or create a bad impression, products that are unfit to be sold or displayed are replaced by store employees.

There are no clear alternatives when it comes to tackling food products that are no longer edible and visibly show signs of hazard. Most of the food wastes coming from stores are from products that fall within this category.

How Grocery Chains Are Reducing Food Wastage

According to statistics, the amount of perfectly edible food that ends up being disposed of is still very high. Much of these foods are prevented from being donated due to food safety and regulation laws, and at other times due to lack of effort from store managers to efficiently deal with unsold foods at the end of the day.

If you’re wondering what else could be done to save these unsold foods or utilize them for other purposes, then you’re in luck. Most States have implemented several rules and policies against food wastage. In this modern world where food wastage is considered as something that must be brought under control, there’s a lot more being done by grocery stores.

After several surveys conducted by independent researchers, change in policies have led to large scale grocery chains making certain commitments when asked about how they plan to tackle food wastage.

They all have pretty much held a strong commitment against zero food waste tolerance, they even have pledged to donate and track where their waste products go. Most of these chains want to make sure everything goes smoothly so that none of these foods are wasted and are at least taken care of when they are no longer sellable.

In many states, policymakers and federal state lawyers have implemented several donations and recycling laws that safely assure food wastages remain under control. Many partners, shelters, volunteer organizations have even pledged to team up with large-scale grocery chains or local ones to transport or store food for those in need.

Many food containers and boxes etc. are recollected for recycling, the food products are at times given away to shelters or homeless people to feed families and relief victims. At times some organic foods are composted which is considered an effective way of tackling both food wastage and helping the environment.

Appropriate products are also used as animal feeds in farms and for stray animals as well.

Sometimes, foods that are still edible or almost are close to being thrown away are given at a discounted price or even for free to employees. These include foods that have recently reached an expiry date, are no longer displayable. A day old baked goods and pastries also fall into this category.

Some organic materials like meat and vegetables are cooked in-before for in-store deli products right before they become spoiled. Canned and boxed food products that no longer maintain peak quality or nearing expired dates are sent to salvage stores.

Foods that lack the quality display standard are at times repurposed in other ways. A bag of rice with a torn label may end up being poured up on top of rice bulk bins. Fruits that have been bruised or don’t look very savory are sent to the juice bars.

Overall, several alternatives have been introduced by the authorities, and grocery store chains are doing the best they can to partner up with the right organizations and people to implement and bring these changes forward.

Foods that are Donated by Supermarkets

With a very sleek profit margin existing on certain products, supermarkets always prioritize their profit above everything else, with new restocking and orders arriving frequently, a lot must be done to replace and handle products from the last batch.

What this means is that some stores will try to be more concise on maintaining and holding a quality standard for their customers to deliver the freshest and quality products.

Thus, expired or near expired items along with minorly damaged products are replaced and taken out of shelves as they are less likely to be sold even if they are still edible.

A ‘best-before’ date is still kept in mind to ensure quality delivery and consumption. Thus, from these large-scale supermarket chains, the products that are removed from aisles and shelves soon find their second home.

These expired products are packed and sent to shelters, relief aids, salvage stores, or simply distributed among the local homeless people. Most of the foods given away are most likely to be expired but are not severely outdated nor are too damaged, as long as it’s edible, it can be helped to feed the needy.

Most people believe it’s not the dates given by manufacturers that determine a food's quality, sometimes our natural sense and observations of smell, looks, and texture will give us the answer whether something is edible or not.

Thus, rotten fruits and veggies, spoiled meats, moldy baked goods, and contaminated cans and boxes usually do not get to see the light of the day and end up in landfills. Many people behind organizations, food banks, and consumer safety teams are always to evaluate signs of spoilage of foods before their distribution.

Even still, some Food banks and shelters have their respective policies when receiving food as a result of donation in large supplies from local stores or volunteers. Thus, even at times, expired or damaged foods may be considered against their policies.

Hence, due to all this distribution being handled by people and employees, supermarket corporations simply are hesitant when it comes to donating food in fear of getting sued. As at times mistakes can be made when foods that are questionable in terms of maintaining safe integrity are donated to Food Banks or organizations which can result in lawsuits.

Though it's sad to think companies would rather dispose of edible foods just to avoid the risk of being sued, there are still many ways such as composting, animal feeding, recycling, and many other alternatives discussed previously that are utilized to save as much food from being disposed of.

Should Expired Food Even Be Donated?

Since most grocery chains consider the food that is no longer in their peak quality as unfit for sale, they are still at times prevented from being wasted by being donated to food scavengers, homeless, shelters and cost-conscious consumers.

This is due to customers usually almost always going for the freshest products unless a discount or offer is placed on the near expiry date or expired products. As a result, before all these products become spoiled or start posing health risks, they are taken care of in other ways
that do not contribute to food wastage.

The Food and Drug Administration has for long approved the safety for the consumption of expired foods. According to them, expiry dates are an indicator of the maintenance of a certain product’s peak quality as hinted by its manufacturer. If handled properly and in regular conditions, expired foods can remain safe for consumption.

Though the quality of these foods will deteriorate with time, they will still not become unsafe to eat until they are contaminated or not properly handled. Frozen and fresh foods should be kept at proper refrigerating conditions, canned and packed products should not be allowed to collect dust, if these are taken care of, then these are safe to remain on the shelf.

So, you can say donating unsold or expired food to the less fortunate is the best way to handle unsold food and fight climate change.

Why Supermarkets Stock Up on Food Items More Than They Can Sell?

No supermarket as mentioned has the intention to throw-away food products and contribute to the global food wastage problem. With a margin of profit set to be around 2-3%, this isn’t something they can even afford to do. This makes the following question a bit of a stretch. However, there’s always proper reasoning behind why these things are done nonetheless.

Most of the food items in Supermarkets are perishable. Thus, they need to be restocked as soon as they are sold out or worse, have been outdated or spoiled. To maintain a steady supply of customers and make a profit, shelves are to be remained filled with products.

Shelves and aisles generally look more attractive to customers when they are full and have products filled with proper and hygienic display standards. To maximize their customer satisfaction and quality of products, empty spaces are filled and damaged products are replaced.

Displaying number of products equal to their amount of sales would mean committing commercial suicide for Supermarkets. It would on the other hand provide leverage to other grocery chain competitors as well.

We as consumers are more likely to shop from a supermarket with a more abundant supply of products than another with a limited number of products. Not only is this a psychological thing, but also a marketing strategy for Supermarkets to stay in business.

In the eyes of those working at Supermarkets, representation, and display matters when it comes to making profits, thus there’s always this clear balance between constantly keeping their aisles and shelves filled with products while also making sure too much food or products are not wasted unnecessarily.

A lot of thoughts and processes are involved when it comes to how this balance is maintained to maximize profit and minimize food wastage altogether.

Now, you know what happens to unsold food in supermarkets. I hope this article was helpful in answering your question. Thanks for reading till the end. Have a good day. 

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About the Grocery Store Academy
The Grocery Store Academy is a blog about everything that has to do with grocery stores. This is your #1 spot to find the right information for your needs.
About the Author
Ferdi Vol has worked several years in a grocery store and has a passion for good food. He's happy to share his passion with you!
About Ferdi Vol
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