The elephant in the shop.

Enormous amounts of food are thrown away every day. I’m not talking about that little bit of dried up cheese or soggy lettuce you found at the back of the fridge. I’m talking about amounts measured in wheelie bins per shop per day.

Naturally, this is blamed on the wasteful Westerners and their ‘don’t give a damn’ culture but that’s not really true, is it? Households have one wheelie bin that (in the UK) gets emptied once every two weeks. Local Shop is not a big shop. We have at least four of those bins, for food waste only, that get emptied every two days. Tesco has those huge wheelie bins you need a forklift to move around – but then the local Tesco is about the size of the council estate I grew up in.

Local Shop doesn’t send food waste to landfill. I know nothing of the monetary arrangements involved, but food waste is separated from other waste so it can go to a methane-generating fermentation plant. Since it costs lots of money to have the council take commercial waste away, the methane-generating plant need not pay for what they collect. They can take it for free and Local Shop is still up on the deal. As I said, I don’t know (or care) about the money side. I don’t get any of it anyway.

It’s true that people buy ‘two for one’ on silly things like fruit that won’t keep very long. Where is the great bargain when, if you buy two packs of fruit for the price of one, one pack goes rotten and is thrown away every time? You haven’t saved anything. You bought two for the price of one, used one, threw one away. So for the price of one you actually got… one. Just buy one next time!

Or club together with a mate who also wants one and pay half-price each.

I don’t throw away much. One glance around my office will tell you that. One side of my desk is down to the wood after a day’s spring cleaning. The papers at the bottom of that pile were from 2005 – and there are deeper piles. I’ve taken full bin bags of stuff out of this room and you can’t see the difference. I bet I can find papers in here dated from before I moved here. There are definitely some in the filing cabinet but that’s behind one of the piles and under another so I can’t check now. If I topple a pile it could take days to dig myself out. Good thing my cleaning-job boss has never seen this room. She’d have me shot.

Likewise with food. I hate to throw it away so don’t buy what I don’t need. Jam is especially annoying. I like jam once in a while but a jar will go hairy before I finish it. What I need is a supply of those little jam packets they have in cafes so I can buy just a few at a time. Just enough for a bit of jam on toast now and then. Sure, it will cost more per ounce of jam, but throwing away half a jar isn’t saving me any money.

In the current economic climate,  I’m betting most people don’t buy food they are going to throw away. Then again, I have seen trolleys in the supermarkets – even in Local Shop – piled high with stuff that won’t last long. Maybe they have big families, maybe they eat a lot, I neither know nor care. As long as they don’t drop it on the floor it’s not my problem.

Ther elephant in the shop though is that it is not Westerners who are to blame for all that waste food. It is Western food laws. Something the linked article ignores.

Every night, after closing, the waste bucket goes around and anything that has today as its expiry date goes in there. Anything close to its expiry date gets reduced in a last ditch attempt to sell it the next day. Otherwise it will go in the next day’s bucket. This is all in a little shop. In something the size of Tesco or Morrison’s the wastage must be exponentially more horrible.

I am certain that every single thing thrown away is perfectly safe to eat. There is a good margin of error in those expiry dates. There has to be. Food producers don’t want to get sued so they find the real shelf life of their products and knock off a week or more to derive an expiry date. You can buy it on the expiry date and be certain it’s safe. If it is sold after the expiry date and anything – anything at all – makes that customer sick, the seller is screwed. No matter what the real cause of their illness, if it draws attention to food sold after its date, you get the blame.

Local Shop – the same rules apply to the big shops – cannot even give away stuff that has reached its date. Not even if there is a queue of emaciated homeless guys outside. Can’t even give them a pork pie although they’d be glad of it even if it was all dried up with a bite taken out of it. Been there, chewed on that, didn’t die.

I have seen those food waste bins fill in one evening with more than I’d eat in a month. If it was allowed, I could take one home each month, fill my freezer and eat for free for evermore. It is not allowed and it is not Health and Safety who are to blame, even though that is always the excuse given.

It is ambulance chasing, no-win no-fee lawyers who are to blame.

The article doesn’t just skirt around that, it ignores it entirely. All the food little Local Shop throws away is good food. It could go to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen and would all be safe to eat. They don’t do that. Not because they are heartless bastards but because they are not allowed to do it. They dare not do it.

If a homeless guy gets the squits (which happens a lot, the random and often green and hairy diet is responsible) and you gave them some out of date food, guess what? Mr. Penniless suddenly has a lawyer telling him he can get a house and car out of his squirty bottom and it doesn’t matter if a one-day-out pre-roast chicken is to blame or not. It was one day out. It takes the blame.

Food shops can’t chance it. In a court case they will definitely lose. You could bring down Sainsbury’s with this if they left themselves open to it. Local Shop could be brought down by one case. They are not going to take the chance.

So massive amounts of good food go to waste because we are not allowed to give it away to people who could really do with it. Not allowed – not by law, but by the threat of lawsuits. Even the really big supermarkets dare not supply those homeless shelters with their waste, but perfectly safe, food. Even the big boys could find themselves in those same homeless shelters if they tried to help.

So nobody helps. The food goes in the bin. Local Shop sends it to generate methane, not to landfill, but wouldn’t it be better if it wasn’t wasted at all? I’ve eaten food past its date, usually because I buy it cheap just before its date. Bread freezes just fine.

A quick sniff is a good indicator. If it smells rotten it probably is. If the can or pack is bulging with gas, it’s probably not going to be worth opening. If it’s hairy and is not a Kiwi fruit then cut off the hairy parts and sniff the remainder. If it’s a banana and the skin is black then it’s ready. Spread it on toast with a sprinkle of cinnamon.

The biggest reason for food wastage is the no-win no-fee lawyers. You can cite them as the real reason behind all these ‘elfin safety’ scares. The safety part is an excuse. What they are really saying is that they are scared of being sued by predatory lawyers and the ‘entitled to compo’ drones.

It has resulted in horrible amounts of food waste, even in a little shop.

I have opted out of the EU working time directive that limits how many hours I can work. I want to opt out of the food safety stuff too, so I can take a wheelie bin of today’s perfectly good dumped food home every month and freeze it.

There seems to be no mechanism for that.

I could set up as a methane generator and keep most of the food… oh. I wonder if that’s already happening?


(Excuse typos. I have a bottle of Talisker 10 and Glenmorangie 10 as birthday presents and have been sampling…)


11 thoughts on “The elephant in the shop.

  1. It’s a sin. There should be a way around it. What if organisations were to sign a simple agreement whereby they understand that the food is past its date and which absolves the shop of any responsibility and then it’s up to whoever gets the food to advise whoever they give it to that it’s probably good to eat, but is past its date and to obtain similar signed agreements?


    • That’s what happens with the Working Time Directive. I’ve opted out. If there was a similar opt-out for ‘the day after use-by’ food which was then available dirt cheap, I’d sign up at once.


  2. Perhaps the thing to do is to have a quiet word with Local Shop Manager and discuss what will probably turn out to be a shared dismay. You could point out that it would still be legal to sell you food after closing, that would just go into a bin, whose sell by is that day. You could propose to take the food for your own purposes at a mutually advantageous price.


    • If there was a lot of fruit involved, it would be just ripe enough to make into booze. Most of it is bread and cakes, unfortunately, and there’s only so much of either I can eat.

      Victoria Sponge Wine… Scone Wine… Shortbread Beer… no, no, that’s a nasty thought… but it wouldn’t cost anything to try.


    • The problem is ther length of time I keep it. Condensation in the half-empty jar lets the fungal spores germinate and once they get a hold, there’s no stopping them.

      At first, I use Grandma’s Remedy. Scoop out the mouldy bits and use the rest. If it’s there long enough and gets hairy enough, even Grandma’s Remedy won’t help.


  3. What annoys me most is that people do not know the difference between ‘sell by’ (or ‘display until’), ‘best before’ and ‘use by’. As you quite rightly say, ‘use by’ is an insurance policy for the retailer. ‘use by’ (mostly applied to meat) to me means get it cheaper and freeze it.


    • The old ‘sell by’ was ditched as meaningless. ‘Best before’ means it might not be as good after that date but not necessarily risky to eat. Sauce thickeners might have fallen apart, that sort of thing. ‘Use by’ is a safety net – it’ll be safe afterwards if it’s kept properly but the manufacturer isn’t guaranteeing it any more. Eat at your own risk.

      Sniff-test and roast to shattering and you should be fine. I’ve eaten far crappier things and survived. Sometimes a bit messily, it’s true, but I didn’t die 😉


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