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Safe to Eat Discarded Food? Study Says Yes


Authors of a Viewpoint article published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics have determined that programs like the new Urban Food Initiative (UFI), which plans to sell food discarded by grocery stores at a greatly discounted price, are ultimately safe and ethical.

The Urban Food Initiative is the brainchild of Doug Rauch, a former president of the Trader Joe’s grocery chain, created as a way to help combat obesity and food insecurity in primarily low-income areas, as well as lower the amount of food waste in the United States.

To accomplish these goals, Rauch suggests selling food discarded by supermarkets that may be near or past their sell-by or best-by date. The use of these discarded foods is where the potential controversy lies: Is it safe to sell these foods? Is it ethical?

Each year, about 42 billion pounds of food is wasted at the retail level. Some of this food is only discarded because shoppers are less likely to purchase foods that are blemished or near their sell-by date. Supermarkets get rid of that food and bring in fresh produce to appeal to their customers. The UFI will sell this discarded food in their stores at a deep discount–65 percent to 75 percent of retail prices.

According to the paper, these dates are actually a measure of shelf life and not safety. With the exception of the 1980 Infant Formula Act, there is actually no federal legislation that sets guidelines for dating food. Some states and industries have taken it upon themselves to set their own guidelines on some or all foods, though this has led to very inconsistent rules across the board. And each year, confusion about food dating leads to an estimated 32 billion pounds of avoidable food waste in the U.S. alone.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture states, “The labels are not safety dates and if food is handled and stored properly, it should be safe to consume even if it is past the date.” Because of this, the authors suggest that since sell-by or best-by dates are not based on spoilage or food safety, foods close to or past these dates are not harmful to consumers.

The second question this paper seeks to answer is: Is it ethical to sell discarded foods to consumers? The authors suggest six questions, based on a series of considerations proposed by Marieke ten Have and colleagues in a study published in the European Journal of Public Health, to help determine UFI’s ethicality:

  • Does the program improve physical health?
  • Does the program have negative psychosocial consequences?
  • Does the program support equality?
  • Does the program inform choice and promote liberty?
  • How does the program protect privacy and handle the attribution of responsibilities?
  • Does the program respect social and cultural values?

Study author Deepak Palakshappa, M.D. and colleagues answer each of these questions in favor of UFI and conclude that, “The store’s food will not be harmful, and the initiative is an ethically appropriate strategy to prevent obesity and food insecurity.”

What’s your take on the results of this study? Would widespread practice of this make an impact on childhood obesity in the United States? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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