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How the Top 5 Supermarkets Waste Food

In a nation where millions go hungry, some of the food supermarkets throw out could feed people in need. But not every grocery chain cares.

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Like many chains, Ralphs has participated in hunger initiatives for years. The company’s Bringing Hope to the Table program raises money for food banks.

But according to a Long Beach, Calif., Ralphs employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, at some stores, food inevitably gets taken off the shelves and composted while it’s still good. Bananas start to have brown spots, potatoes get a green tint and packaged vegetables – such as carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and mushrooms – reach their sell-by dates.

“Today I threw out 20 bags of lettuce” the employee said in an interview, reporting that any food past the sell-by date gets thrown into compost. “The code date was for yesterday – but I would have purchased any one of those bags.”

That practice should change once the company’s Perishable Donations Partnership is rolled out to all its stores. The company started the program in early 2009 with the goal of donating perishable products that are not sellable but still edible. At the end of November 2009, the program was in place at two-thirds of the company’s stores. Ralphs hopes to expand the program to all of its stores before this summer.

“It’s meat that’s at its sell-by date – if we freeze it on that date, the food bank is still very able to use it,” said Ralphs spokesperson Kendra Doyel. “It’s also produce, slightly bruised fruit for example.”

She said the company realized protein and produce were “very critical” for the needs of food banks.

“We like people who like food, and we’ve had a long-standing commitment to [reduce] food waste,” Doyel said. “This way we can reduce food waste and get more food to them.”

In implementing the program, the company is also working with food banks and food recovery groups to ensure food safety, Doyel said. This involves making sure organizations have refrigerated trucks or thermal blankets.

“It was a matter of getting a program in place,” said Doyel. “We take it personally not only as company but as individuals.”

3) Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“Wal-Mart has a pretty terrible track record with throwing out perfectly edible food instead of donating it,” said Taylor Leake, a spokesperson for Wake-Up Walmart.

But after years of criticism for its food waste, Wal-Mart started a partnership with hunger-relief organization Feeding America in November 2008.

The program has now rolled out to all Wal-Mart stores and Sam’s Club locations, according to Wal-Mart spokesperson Amelia Neufeld.

“Wal-Mart’s food donation program takes food that is still safe for consumption off Wal-Mart shelves and delivers it to neighborhood food banks,” the company said in a statement. “The food – which consists of nutritious servings of produce, deli meat, beef, chicken, dairy and other groceries – is then given to needy families, often in less than 24 hours.”

4) Costco Wholesale Corp.

Costco has no company-wide food recovery program in place. According to figures derived from its own 2009 sustainability report, the company composts 45 million pounds of food each year.

“With this information, we realized that we could divert much of the organic waste from the landfill,” says Costco’s sustainability report. “We are testing several new technologies as a way to reduce the amount of waste material our locations throw into the trash.

“Our goal is to reduce our operating costs through decreased garbage collection and disposal costs; and to identify potential reuse markets for what would otherwise be waste materials.”

Costco’s sustainability report goes on to describe one of the company’s food waste diversion programs, which involves placing the company’s de-packaged produce and deli waste in large bins. The bins can then be picked up by dairy farmers for feed or “local worm farm operators that turn the organic waste into compost.”

The report does not address the issue of food recovery.

“Food recovery isn’t listed as a way to reduce waste because if it could be recovered, it isn’t waste,” said Karen Raines, director of corporate sustainability for Costco. “The food that is thrown into the dumpster isn’t food that’s suitable for human consumption.”

But that might not always be the case. It’s not that all that food that has been thrown away has gone bad.

“Grocery stores have a sell-by date listed on a lot of foods, but those foods are still good for another 10 days, on average,” said Mercer of Food Finders. “We call that our ‘window of opportunity.’”

Arlene Mercer, founder of recovery group Food Finders, said that though she has approached the company, it will not participate and has instead offered her discounts on the food she buys for the programs and occasional free turkeys.

Raines says it’s up to each warehouse to decide what to donate, because it “really just comes down to food safety laws to see what’s suitable for human consumption.”

“Those sell-by dates are there for a reason,” she added.

Even with legal protections, many companies, including Costco, are still concerned by the prospect of a lawsuit.

“Good Samaritan laws don’t say anything – they just say you may or may not be sued if you donate,” said Raines.

There is evidence Costco is making some changes affecting the issue of food insecurity. In October, the company finally started accepting food stamps.

“This economy was a wake-up call,” said Richard Galanti, Costco’s chief financial officer, in an October earnings call to Wall Street analysts.  “It is not just low-end economic strata that are using this, that typically don’t have purchasing power. It’s a lot of people that are using this as a source of their overall consumption.”

As to why they hadn’t implemented food stamps before, he said, “I think that was probably a little bit arrogant on our part.”

5) Safeway Inc. (Vons and Safeway)