The question box: why do we give out expired food?

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Our question box

At a service program like Emergency Food Hampers, it’s often hard to make staff seem approachable. No matter how friendly or trusting staff act towards patrons, there will always be a power divide. We have the power to give people food or withhold it for reasons we deem legitimate. Although we do make many exceptions and operate based on trust, the perceived (and real) power divide exists.

It was partially for this reason that a few weeks ago, we came up with the idea of putting a question box in our lobby. The idea behind this is that if people felt too self-conscious or shy to ask front desk staff a question about our program, they can put it in the box instead. If they leave a telephone number or email, we can contact them within a week to answer their question. If they don’t, we can answer the question on the blog. This is supposed to be a way for people to have multiple routes to getting information about our program. As such, this is installment one of question box answers.

The first question we found in the box read: why do you give people expired food? This is an excellent question!

The short answer is simple: we don’t. We do give out food near or slightly past its best before date, but never past its expiry date.

To give a proper answer, let’s go into the intricacies of food labeling; namely the difference between best before and an expiry date. When companies label food as best before, it means the food is still edible, and probably perfectly fine, for a while after that date. For crackers or cookies, it means that they might be slightly stale but still ok. For peanut butter or yogurt, it just means the product might separate, but will still taste the same if you simply stir it. Of course, use your judgment when using these foods; if something seems sour or moldy, it is no longer edible. As Health Canada says on their website, when in doubt, throw it out. When we give food that is near or a day or two past its best before date, we are confident that it is perfectly edible.  Would we give out items a week or more past its best by date?  Likely not, unless we were given some assurances from the producer of the food item that it would be safe.

Two foods we are comfortable giving out past the best before date are yogurt and frozen meat. Yogurt is something that is generally good for up to two weeks after its best before date, which is why we often give it out here very close to the date on the container. That said, our goal is to never give it out more than a few days past the printed date. Frozen meat is ok because we make sure it is frozen before the printed expiry date. The expiry date on meat is for when it is fresh only, so after it is frozen it’s actually ok to thaw, cook, and eat for another 6 months as long as you follow the usual precautions.

Canned food is another item that is typically ok after the best before. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as long as the can is in good shape and isn’t dented, open, or bulging, the food inside should be good for years. For this reason, as long as cans are physically intact, don’t have any rust, dents or bulges, we do give them out up to a few months past the best by date.  If something is extremely old we will not give it out.  It may not make you sick, but, following the rule of “if I wouldn’t eat it, I won’t give it out” we will typically not distribute canned items that are more than a year old at the most.

Expiry dates are different than best before dates. When a product has passed its expiry date, it should not be eaten. According to Health Canada, foods that have an expiry date include meal replacement drinks (such as Boost or Ensure), baby formula, and nutritional supplements. As they explain on their website here, after it expires, the food no longer contains the nutritional value printed on the label, loses its physical stability and may pose a health risk. After that point, it should never be consumed. For that reason, we never distribute foods past their expiration date, and give it out as an extra item with the warning that the date is approaching soon.

It is very important to give out food that has nutritional value and is still good. Our general guideline is that if staff and volunteers wouldn’t eat it, we don’t give it out.  If something is not clear cut, we will give it out with full disclosure as an extra item so people can decide for themselves if they would like it.  In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to walk this fine line between before or after a best by or use by date.  As a program that depends on donations, often, our work is to reclaim food items that the market, and general public, would not want to purchase or sell.  We save edible food from being wasted in the dump, but are forced to evaluate if we should give something out, how best to do it, and to do so in a way that preserves the dignity and health of the people who turn to us for help in difficult times.

If you have any questions about our program, we’re always happy to answer them! You don’t need to get to our question box in order to ask, feel free to post them on the blog here.

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2 Responses to “The question box: why do we give out expired food?”

  1. The question box: how do we get the food we give out? « Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] that they were maybe hesitant to come up and ask the staff. Last time, we answered the question “why do you give out expired food?” Today I’ll be answering another question: “how do you get this much food?” The question box in […]

  2. The Good the Bad and the Unexpected: First Reflections on Emergency Food | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] that we do. On average, any given day, about 125 patrons come through our doors. Anything with a best before date the day of can be given away immediately within a day. So for example, 100 litres of milk donated […]

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