WeFood, the world’s first grocery store to sell expired foods, opened in Copenhagen, Denmark last week.
Launched by Danish NGO Folkekirkens Nodhjaelp, the supermarket hawks food that is past its official expiry date or unlikely to be sold on other supermarket shelves due to damaged packaging or aesthetic flaws. The hook – prices are 30 to 50 per cent cheaper than other grocers.
“The intent there is not just to reduce waste but to raise funds for the needy for regions that are actually food insecure like Asia, Africa and the Middle East,” Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph told Yahoo Canada Finance. “But I think the most interesting point of all is this retail store is for everyone – you don’t have to be a member, you don’t have to qualify because of your income.”
A combination of overly cautious expiration dates and perception surrounding foods that look bad sends and estimated 700 million kilograms of edible produce to landfills. The European Union recently pledged to reduce food waste by 50 per cent by 2025 and France has gone one step further, making it illegal to throw edible food away as of July 2016.
Across the pond, Canadians throw away $31 billion worth of edible food annually, according to a report by consulting firm Value Chain Management International.
Some Canadian companies like Second Harvest, which started collecting donated and surplus food in 1985, have been trying to re-purpose food waste albeit for social service agencies and food banks as opposed to the general public. But Charlebois says he’s not entirely convinced the general public would take up the idea the way the Danish seem to have.
“The food safety landscape in Europe is much different than Canada, refrigeration is utterly overused here – items like eggs and some cheeses would not be in fridges there and raw milk is readily available in many European countries,” says Charlebois. “It’s just a different regime here, the way Europeans perceive risk in foods is very different.”
But the legal barriers in Canada are less in line with that perception than one might suspect.
“It’s not illegal in Canada to sell products that are expired as long as you’re transparent about it and don’t change the date,” says the food expert.
Last year, Loblaws and Sobeys came under fire when an employee exposed the seedy secrets of tampering with expiry dates and combining expired foods with non-expired foods to avoid losses.
“That was illegal, that’s food fraud but if you don’t change the date and a customer actually walks into the store, buys milk and on the carton it says February 20 and it’s March 1 – that’s not illegal, it’s just bad inventory management,” says Charlebois. “The company won’t get into trouble because it isn’t misleading the public but (most) food businesses wouldn’t want to do that because you may actually make people sick and that’s not a good business model.”
He points to illness as one of the major challenges for the model, given that 85 per cent of food borne sickness come from cross-contamination in the home. Charlebois says that giving expired food to people with weak immune systems like the elderly or children, is risky.
“If you actually had a WeFood in Canada you might actually increase that (number of people getting sick) so you really want to make sure you empower consumers in terms of how to manage risk properly and protect themselves and their loved ones,” says Charlebois. “But if you look at people who are healthy, that’s a pretty good chunk of our population – I see this as the future of managing food waste.”