Living on out-of-date produce for a month to reduce food waste

Irish homes and businesses dump over a million tonnes of food each year. You can’t eat it all, but Ellie O’Byrne spent January living on out-of-date food in the fight against waste

Living on out-of-date produce for a month to reduce food waste

Irish homes and businesses dump over a million tonnes of food each year. You can’t eat it all, but Ellie O’Byrne spent January living on out-of-date food in the fight against waste

I’m having a nightmare. Coming from my fridge is a tremendous racket, so I open the door to see what’s causing the noise. The inside is crammed with food items, all arguing with each other and trying to shout each other down.

Clearly, our latest household living experiment has taken a toll; just not in the way you might expect. My kids and I have been living on out-of-date foods for the month of January and the obsession is obviously taking over.

The global problem of food waste has entered public consciousness in recent years. Last December, UK retailer Co-op announced it would sell items past their best before date to avoid dumping excess stock. At home, Irish social enterprise FoodCloud has generated headlines for its success in redistributing surplus foods to charities with mouths to feed.

According to the EPA’s Stop Food Waste campaign, Irish industry, retailers, and homes generate an obscene million tonnes of food waste each year, even as one in eight people faces food poverty.

Food waste was on my radar, but Christmas was the final straw. According to the Irish Waste Management Association (IWMA), Irish households generate 20% more food waste at Christmas. In the days before January 1, gazing down supermarket aisles at all the discounted seasonal stock, Christmas vol-au-vents, and festive nibbles, I wondered where it was all going to end up when it expired.

I decide we’ll only buy (or accept for free) out-of-date foods for a month, to see. When I announce this plan, my kids express the conviction that we’re likely to end up in hospital, so I decide to start by contacting the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) for some advice.

Dr Lisa O’Connor is the FSAI’s chief specialist in biological safety. We start by clearing up the confusion around the dates consumers see on their foods. There are two dates used on food packaging, best before and use by. “A best before date is about quality, and a use-by date is about safety,” Lisa tells me. “You can eat food after a best before date, but there may be some quality issues. But we wouldn’t recommend that you eat something after its use by date. In fact, under EU law, it’s illegal to sell something after its use-by date because it’s considered unsafe.”

What’s wrong with the good, old-fashioned nose test? Lisa says this may work for some low-risk foods, but others can have microbial horrors lurking beneath a seemingly innocuous exterior; they may not show any of the classic signs of spoilage like discolouration, mould or smell.

“Raw fish and raw meat are very high risk, and some deli meats carry a big risk of Listeria past their use-by dates, because Listeria can grow at fridge temperatures,” she warns. “I absolutely would not advise you to eat anything past its use-by date.” Excellent advice, which we then proceed to break for a month.

A disclaimer here: I’m not recommending that people do this at home, and I’m not making light of the dangers of food poisoning. We avoided many foods entirely for this experiment. I have a background in food production, including HACCP training, and I used extreme care in handling, refrigerating and thoroughly cooking all the foods we ate. My approach: I visit all the supermarkets to shop, clearing out their discounted sections. As it’s illegal to sell foods past their use by date, I find that I can only buy foods on their last day of shelf life.

Surprisingly, I can’t find products past their best before on sale in any of the larger retailers, even though it’s legal and they’re perfectly safe, as Lisa pointed out. Tesco Ireland confirms for me that they don’t sell items past their best before, “due to consumer behaviour and quality perceptions.” There are a couple of tip-offs for smaller retailers that do: Peg Twomey’s shop on the Coal Quay, and the Abbot Ale House off-licence occasionally sells discounted beer after its best before.

So for the most part, the first big surprise is how healthy our diet is. The most readily available foods are fresh fruit and vegetables: I completely trust my own in-built best-before sensors for those. Everyone can identify a mushy potato or a wrinkled carrot. The more processed the food, though, the less confident I am that nose, eyes, and a surreptitious squeeze are likely to be reliable; practices like gas-flushing and the addition of preservatives extend shelf-life, but in weird ways. So we’re eating very little processed foods.

Some items are actually better from the discount shelf. We take full advantage of the post-Christmas glut of cheeses, most of which are sold far too young: Bavarian Blue cheese, Stilton, Leicestershire. Fruit is another win. I only buy bananas from the discount shelf anyway, due to supermarkets’ curious habit of selling them at full price while they are under-ripe (yellow or greenish-yellow) and putting them on special offer the second they develop that dapple of brown freckles that indicates their sugars are nicely developed and they are at their best.

A surprise is milk; I buy low-fat organic milk on its’ last day, and five days later, I’m using the last of it in a béchamel sauce. For bread, I’m blessed: my sister and her partner own The Natural Foods Bakery in Cork. They only sell bread on the day it is baked. Due to their scale and flexible production quantities, wastage is very small, but I can nip down to one of their stores at closing time and pick up a loaf of bread which would otherwise be donated to Penny Dinners or perhaps brought home by staff. With a little inventiveness, dinners are fine. Here’s an example: mushrooms stuffed with a garlicky breadcrumb and blue cheese stuffing, roast potatoes that were a day past their date when I got 5kg for €1.25, a red cabbage and green bean coleslaw, and a green salad. Each and every thing at least a day past its use-by date.

It’s astoundingly cheap. In the first week, I spend just under €50 on groceries. But it has its down-sides too; it’s time-consuming as I have to trawl a circuit of about five main supermarkets every two to three days to keep us in groceries. And, having spent the past year focusing on cutting down on plastic packaging, the level of packaging waste we accumulate is horrifying.

There are a couple of necessities I just can’t source: oil, butter and pasta. We hold out for a week, but then I discover a carefully squirrelled-away block of butter in the back of a cupboard, the work of my 13-year-old daughter. It gives me pause. When your daughter spends her pocket money on butter and hides it, can that be considered a parenting triumph? I’m not sure. It’s a matter of perspective: I like to think I’m teaching them valuable life skills and a respect for natural resources. They think I’m denying them basic human rights and possibly trying to give them botulism. I cave, and buy the necessities.

But I’m a zealous convert. Now our month is over, I can’t guarantee that I’ll be going full “Freegan” any time soon, but I’ll certainly be making a beeline for the discounted section when I go shopping in future.

Several large retailers have made encouraging moves towards tackling food waste, including signing up to initiatives like FoodCloud, a non-profit which distributes surplus foods to charities, under the FSAI’s food safety guidelines. But these measures can only go so far; retailers need to review things like shelf life and stocking practices too, if we’re really going to stop being a nation of wasters.

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