During my time working in both management and part time capacities at a large supermarket, I can tell you that the evolution of what happens with food past its sell by date has been pretty fascinating. There is a distinction to note that there are generally several dates associated with food. There is a sell by date, a best by date, and an expiration date.
The short answer to your question is, yes, a lot of food gets thrown out.
The long answer is that most supermarkets do a very good job of minimizing this waste. Almost all departments, especially ones with perishable items, order to sell out and should come very close to running out before their next order arrives. Think about that the next time your supermarket is out of fresh wild salmon. Would they really bring in one extra twenty pound case just to sell you an eight ounce fillet at 8PM the night before fresh fish arrives? Depends on the market and how aggressively the store wants to capture sales, but mostly, no.
The blanket rule for food past its expiration date is this: if it is unsafe in any way, shape, or form, it gets thrown out. They find a way to use almost everything else.
Produce - Fruits and vegetables don't come with clear expiration dates. I will tell you that you will probably never see a banana that's turning brown on the racks in the produce department. If some produce isn't sell-able, it usually gets shopped around the store. A department that handles any type of prepared foods will use these items to make items for hot bars, salad bars, soups, etc. The same goes for meat and seafood that is past its sell by date but still within its best by date.
Composting seems like the natural answer for all the other produce that can't be used. This issue has been explored and explored at our supermarket, and there are two major roadblocks to seeing it in action.
- Storage - Most farms are generally further away from urbanized (or suburbanized) stores. Because produce deteriorates rather quickly farms would have to pick up compostable produce on a daily basis. Storage at the market is not an option because a large, rotting pile of fruit would attract all sorts of unwanted pests to the store. Daily pickup is difficult, and would the extra monetary and green cost of the freight and labor make up for the produce that would be picked up? The logistics of the operation are more involved than one might initially think.
- Recalls - Unfortunately, recalls due to contaminated fruits and vegetables do happen. Many of them happen after the produce has been in the store for some time. If the store composts melons, and those same melons are recalled two days later due to a possible salmonella contamination, then you have potentially deadly compost making its way around your local farms. I am neither an expert in foodborne illness nor composting, so I don't know if there is any validity to this concern, but I do know it sounds scary. And that's enough to put the issue on the back burner.
Bakery - Almost all old baked goods get donated to the local food bank, which disperses it to not for profit agencies in the area. Every morning, a big shopping cart of old muffins, donuts, and bread makes its way to the back dock, and every morning at 10AM, a van rolls around and picks it up.
Meat and Seafood - Lately, within the past couple of months, they've been testing out freezing meats that have just passed sell by date and donating these to the local soup kitchens. Again, this is still in its infancy, and some issues have arisen that have taken the logistics of this back to the drawing board. The main issue becomes, and always comes back to, safety. Just because a product makes it to its final consumer in a frozen state doesn't mean it's 100% safe. What happened to the product in the mean time? Traceability is of paramount importance until it gets to the store, but the cost involved with continuing that traceability until it reaches donations is economically unfeasible.
Grocery and Dairy - Unfortunately, for the same reasons Meat and Seafood can't be donated, many refrigerated, expired dairy products don't make the list. The good news is that very few items get thrown out. Longer shelf lives, higher demand, and tight orders ensure that the only dairy products that really get thrown out are the damaged ones that aren't safe for consumption anyways.
Grocery items are given to food banks. I'm sure some smaller markets donate directly. At our store, everything expired is packed and freighted to headquarters, and they distribute the goods evenly among the communities that our supermarkets are located in. The extra freight may seem wasteful, but I am assuming they record their donations for tax deduction purposes.
I've had the good fortune to spend some time volunteering at food banks. They have different expiration dates for products, which I assume are regulated by some sort of government agency. For example, (I'm just using an arbitrary example, I don't remember the exact dates and figures) canned beans may be okay for two years past the date on the can, whereas boxed pasta is good for six months past the date on the box. The majority of my volunteer time at the food banks was spent sorting through the mountains of canned goods and checking expiration dates to see what was still deemed safe and what wasn't.
So basically, if it's safe, it gets donated. If it's not, it gets thrown out. Definitely some food for thought.More questions on Supermarkets: