Photo by otisarchives3 (Flickr CC)
Some think they’re a law, others see them as a guideline, and a few people say they’re just a lie. But whatever they are, the sell-by dates on your food are more than just consumer protection. We discovered the truth behind the label.
It’s a bit unfair to describe all Germans as anal, but every now and then you do find one spending a bit too long in front of the yoghurt shelf in Lidl. If you ask them, they will tell you, without a flicker of embarrassment, that they are checking the sell-by dates to find the one that is furthest into the future. Almost no one is exempt from the western world’s universal dependence on sell-by dates. They are comforting, after all, in a time where hermetic packaging deprives our sense of smell of its power to distinguish the fresh food from the rotten Gammelfleisch.
But for some more adventurous folk, sell-by dates are fiction, plain and simple. “There’s nothing wrong with the yoghurt!” says Stew, tucking into a jar of full-fat blueberry that expired (only) three days before. Stew is an American-born Berliner who has eaten out of supermarket bins for many years. For him, the sell-by date is just another cosy, consumerist fantasy. “You suspend your disbelief, like you do when you’re watching a magician or a politician or a Hollywood flick.”
Twice a week after dark, Stew goes to his favourite supermarkets, climbs over or crawls under the fence, and does his groceries. The only time he was ever stopped by the police, the officer “just rolled his eyes and walked away.” Until a few years ago, Stew just looked after himself, but now he’s also gathering food for his young family. He believes that the average supermarket - spurred by consumers’ perceived perfectionism - throws away 25 percent of its produce. “The other night, I got about a hundred eggs. It’s crazy: if they find a cracked egg, they throw away the whole box.”
Dumpster diving (or ‘freeganism’) was a transatlantic fad in the early 1990s. In Berlin, it caught on after the fall of the Wall, and was practised by the inhabitants of squats and communes. In the US, it was partly subsumed into a political campaign led by the Food Not Bombs movement. But for Stew, now in his mid-thirties, the political element is of less importance than his immediate need to put food on the table. And he’s not alone: the trend has died, but the unspoilt food is still waiting in those bins, and there are lots of individuals willing to collect it.
The legal situation
Two numbers dictate when a German supermarket gets rid of its food (both of which are printed on the packaging by the manufacturer): the Mindesthaltbarkeitsdatum (MHD) and the Verfallsdatum, or expiry date. The MHD indicates the minimum amount of time food will keep certain properties - colour and taste, basically - if stored in the appropriate conditions. After that it is, in almost all cases, still safe to eat. It’s legal to sell or give away food that has passed its MHD if the retailer thinks it is still edible, but the responsibility falls on its shoulders.
It is even legal to repackage and re-label post-MHD food if, according to the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL), it’s done “with the necessary expertise and without the intent to deceive”. Yet, as BVL spokeswoman Nina Banspach says, “Only the company that applied the original MHD to the package, or someone empowered by them to do so, is permitted to change it.” Banspach admits that because the food’s durability has to be proven, “the expense and effort is in many cases too high, which is why the food is disposed of.”
The expiry date embodies more rigid legal criteria. If food has expired, it is deemed inedible: it is illegal either to sell it or to pass it on. But according to Stew and other dumpster-divers, neither of these dates is determined by a scientific estimate of when the food will go off. He claims they are instead set by the supermarket’s cycle of supply - if a supplier has a load of raspberries, he will deliver them whether or not there are good raspberries still on the shelves.
“The producers have to have a volume contract with the supermarket - they have to be able to move a certain volume, and the more volume they move, the better price they can get for the product. So it’s actually to their advantage to have the product on the shelf for a shorter period. This means they only have to sell, say, 70 percent of what they bring in. The supermarkets time everything for that loss.”
The only legal criteria for sell-by dates, which are now uniform throughout the European Union, is that the food be hygienic and safe. Within those boundaries, manufacturers are free to impose whatever dates they want. Some statistics value Germany’s food waste at €10 billion a year.
Of course, charitable food banks receive a lot of the excess food. Berlin’s main food bank is the Berliner Tafel which, since its inception in 2005, has become one of the city’s most important charities. According to its own statistics, the organisation uses 600 volunteers to collect up to 650 tonnes of local food every month. This is distributed to 300 different social institutions: homeless shelters, advice centres, soup kitchens and so on. It has reached the point where food retailers of every size contact them regularly to hand over discarded food.
But Stew believes there is still more than enough to go round. In a weary voice, he defends his lifestyle: “The food is put in separate bags, not with general trash like ashtrays and stuff,” he points out, as if he’s had to too many times before. “The problem is that people think it’s all about not taking a shower for a month, and dragging around a big shopping cart full of bottles, and looking in a container in the U-Bahn, which is probably the worst place to look. But there’s a private side you don’t see.” Dumpstering no longer represents a particular ideological movement. But according to those who do it, it is easy enough to enter into a private contract with your local supermarket manager, if you are reliable about picking up the food and promise you won’t prosecute if you find a worm. It has become a low-key lifestyle choice - and those who practise it want to keep it that way.