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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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Unemployment. Health care. The national debt. So many social issues take a lot to fix: experts, money, and lots of time. To add to a growing list of social issues, here’s another: 1 in 7 American households has trouble putting food on the table at some point during the year, according to a recent USDA report.

But in a nation where so many go hungry, a possible solution has emerged.

Grocery stores have lots of foods that need to be taken off shelves daily: stock that needs to rotate, surplus food like bananas that are starting to have brown spots, or refrigerated items that need to move for the new product coming in. Food products make up 63 percent of a supermarket’s disposed waste stream, according to a California Integrated Waste Management Board industry study. That’s approximately 3,000 lbs. thrown away per employee every year. The stores can’t sell the food, so they toss it in the compost or garbage.

Organizations and an army of volunteers -- called “food recovery” groups -- are stationed around the country, ready to transport that food from the stores to the people that need it most. Meats that are close to the sell-by date, for example, can be frozen and good for several more months.

If only it was that simple. 

While most food retailers participate in some kind of food donation program, many stick to things like breads, cakes, and dented cans, while throwing away fruits, vegetables, meats, and other perishable food most needed by the hungry. 

"Liability” and "bad press" are the oft-cited reasons food retailers give for not donating perishable food, but they're not good ones, say food recovery advocates.

President Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in 1996, designed to protect those establishments and individual donors from criminal and civil liability, should any recipients become ill from food donation. State laws have been in place long before that which protect donors and encourage donation. None of the laws have ever been challenged. 

The federal law protects all donations made in good faith. The only exception is “gross negligence” or intentional misconduct -- the plaintiff would have to prove that the company or individual, in donating food to the needy, was intentionally and knowingly engaging in conduct that was likely to harm another person. But realistically, what homeless person or shelter is going to sue for food poisoning?

“Bad press” is another poor excuse. Would shoppers really view a grocery chain as “bad” when, in the noble process of rescuing food from landfills, one needy person (or more) fell ill? Likely not.  

Food recovery programs do take some time, energy and investment. But they're not impossible operations. Chains like Albertsons lead the way in training employees to hold food for local partners in the community rather than indiscriminately tossing foods that may be safe for consumption. 

Arlene Mercer, founder of Long Beach-based food recovery organization Food Finders, says she sees a growing willingness among grocery stores to donate. “During this economy people are recognizing there is a food crisis,” she says, adding that the agencies Food Finders serve report a near-quadrupling of need from prior years.

Here they are, from best to worst: how the five largest food retailers in the U.S. handle perishable food waste.

1) SuperValu Inc. (Albertsons, Lucky)

Albertsons was the first food chain to start a formal perishable food recovery program. In its “Fresh Rescue” program, each store partners with a local community organization to receive the food. Each store has one or two employees trained and designated to work with partner agencies.

“Stores have been doing it on their own for a few years now but we wanted to find a way to pull it all together,” said Lilia Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Albertsons. “It’s eggs, cheese, milk, fruits – and it’s those products that are really hard for food banks to get a hold of. Non-perishables are usually what they get.”

Rodriguez said that in addition to helping the community, it improves employee morale.

“The employee that helps knows they’re doing their part in the community,” she said. “They know the shelter or church around the corner it’s going to.”

As for the fear of liability, Rodriguez noted the Good Samaritan protections and added that, “Most but not all [agencies] have refrigerated trucks. If they don’t, we ask them to cover the food with thermal blankets for the 15 or 20 minute drive to the agency. We want to make sure it gets there safely.”

Albertsons has also provided refrigerated trucks to some of its partner organizations.

“When it comes to feeding people, there’s no competition,” Rodriguez said. “Number one, it’s the right thing to do. Number two, one of our top initiatives as a company is the fight against hunger. We feel like, if we don’t do it, who will? It isn’t about cost-impact. It’s about doing what’s right. And ultimately, it helps our customers.”

2) Ralphs Grocery Company

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) 

Vons and Safeway partner with Feeding America, which was formerly known as America’s Second Harvest. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and San Diego Food Bank are major recipients of the grocery chain’s donations.

“Each year we give millions of dollars of food to various food banks and hunger programs,” says company spokesperson Teena Massingill. “That’s food donated from our stores: bread donations, day-old bread from store from pantry, food that we can’t sell in the store but is still good – a dented can, a product that’s still good but reformulated. It also includes food drives we do – customers will purchase food and put in bins.”

But excess perishable foods routinely get thrown away.

Former Safeway deli employee John Wadginski says walking into a Safeway store still brings up bad memories for him. It wasn’t selling the food that bothered him – it was the amount he was required to throw away at the end of each night that made his stomach churn.

“All the ‘daily specials’ – cooked food like ham and ribs were dumped each night,” Wadginski said. “I had to throw out 10 pound hams that weren’t even touched. It was easily 50 pounds of food a night.”

Other employees corroborated his claims.

“Once the items are out of our control, we cannot guarantee that they will be kept under the specified temperatures,” said Massingill. “While Good Samaritan laws may or may not protect a donor in this case, it is best to error on the side of caution when dealing with the health and safety of others. Many pantries do not have refrigeration units on site at all, making it impossible to completely avoid spoilage.”

It’s not just food requiring refrigeration that Safeway chooses not to donate. Produce receives the same treatment.

“If a produce item is deemed unfit for sale, we do not donate it for human consumption,” Massingill said. “It may be deemed unfit because it is bruised or overripe … Safeway does not donate items that are not fit for consumption or could be unfit for consumption when they reach the final recipient.”

Tina Mather is a freelance reporter in Los Angeles.