Doug Rauch, former president of the Trader Joe’s chain, is planning to launch a new supermarket called The Daily Table next year in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. This store will specialize in preparing, repackaging and selling – at massively discounted prices – produce that has just passed its sell-by date.
“This is about trying to tackle a very large social challenge we have that is going to create a health care tsunami in cost if we don’t do something about it,” Rauch has stated of his new project. “I don’t regard Daily Table as the only solution – there are wonderful innovative ideas out there – but I certainly think it is part of and is an innovative approach to trying to find our way to a solution.”
His announcement comes after the recent release of The Dating Game, an investigation into the efficacy of the food date labeling system by the National Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic. This report aims to examine why up to 40% of food produced in the U.S. gets thrown away, while many impoverished citizens go hungry, and what steps can be taken to rectify the situation.
The date labeling system originally arose in the 1970s, when Americans began to produce less of their own food, but demanded that manufacturers provide them with information about how their produce was made. The dates were never designed to indicate the microbial safety of the product, but were instead supposed to suggest when the product would be at its peak in terms of freshness and flavor.
The only product that is currently subject to federal date labeling regulations is infant food formula, because its nutrient levels tend to decline after a certain date. Otherwise, the issue of whether to put a best-before date on food, the phrase used to describe this date (“Use By,” “Best Before,” or “Sell By”), and what these phrases mean, is a matter for each individual state and food manufacturer to decide. As a result, American consumers experience mass confusion over the issue, with 90% of them throwing away food at least occasionally because they assume that once its sell-by or best-before date has passed, the product is unsafe to eat.
Dana Gunders, staff scientist at the NRDC and co-author of The Dating Game, states: “The main thing to understand is that food-borne illness comes from contamination, not spoilage. A pathogen has to be on your food to begin with in order for you to get sick, and it has to grow to levels that will make you sick. Handling your food safely is more important than its age.” Some of the food-handling tips she recommends, as outlined in an infographic provided with the report, include storing each food item in an appropriate section of the refrigerator, never leaving the refrigerator door open for longer than is necessary, and never allowing large amounts of ice to build up inside it.
“[A]s consumers, the most important thing we can do is handle our food safely,” Gunders concludes. “Both business and government can be partners in this by providing education, but also by helping to make our food dating system more intelligible. We need a reliable, coherent and uniform system of date labels that actually communicates what the dates are trying to convey.”
Emily Broad Leib, co-author of the report and and director of Harvard Food Law & Policy clinic, adds: “This is about quality, not safety. You can make your own decision about whether a food still has an edible quality that’s acceptable to you.”
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