Expired foods get new life from budget shoppers as inflation soars, but are they safe?

On a cold winter morning in Chicago, people are lined up outside for the opening of Continental Sales, a family business just north of the city’s Midway Airport. They’re not waiting to buy the latest iPhone or tablet, but food that is expired or nearly expired.

Usually seen as garbage or unsafe, outdated and short-dated items are now coveted by people who find that switching to cheaper brands just isn’t enough to lower their food bills amid the highest inflation in a generation.

Outdated foods are those past their expiration dates, while short-dated foods have a short window, usually about 30 days or less, to expiration.

Even if eating outdated or short-dated food sounds unappetizing, it’s actually safe and a way to save money and cut food waste. Nearly 40%, or 108 billion pounds, of food is wasted in the United States each year, according to ReFED, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste. The organization said half of the food thrown out by storesis because they’re worried they can’t sell past its “use by,” “best by,” or “sell by” dates.

But instead of tossing these items, they’re increasingly being bought by retailers such as Continental Sales to sell at deep discounts. And the response lately has been overwhelming.

“We sell a ton of it,” said Ron Rojas, owner of theretailer, which also sells discontinued and salvage general merchandise along with closeout grocery products that include both short-dated items and outdated products a few months past expiration.

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“We can get 1,000 customers a day,” looking for all sorts of discounted wares but especially, grocery items, Rojas said. That’s up more than 20% from last year, he said. “We had to add two checkout lanes in the last six weeks to accommodate those lines.”

Who buys short-dated and outdated food?

Traditionally, it’s low-income people who can’t afford to do all their shopping at regular grocery chains like Kroger or Albertson’s. However, with 68% of Americans saying they have felt the biggest impact of inflation in their monthly grocery expenses, according to a recent online WalletHub survey, more people are looking to save money. Grocery prices in October jumped 10.9% over the past year, outpacing overall inflation of 7.7%.

Massachusetts-based Daily Table,a nonprofit grocery store that sells short-dated foods, excess inventories and food products dumped by companies because the brand’s marketing has changed and the labels are old , saw transactions double from customers using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) during the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days, said Chief Executive Rob Twyman.

But this year, along with ongoing strong SNAP transactions, “we’re seeing a broader spectrum of customers, in middle income, and a transaction uptick as inflation has increased,” he said.

He said the store never sells expired foods. It has a kitchen that uses edible items that arepast their prime to make prepared foods for sale. For example, over-ripe bananas can be used to make banana bread that customers might buy. Nothing is wasted, Twyman said.

Are expired foods or nearly expired foods safe to eat?

Yes, though they may not taste as good as if you had eaten them earlier.

Consumers often mistakenly believe expired products are no longer consumable. About 80% of Americans prematurely discard food due to confusion over date labels, said Food Marketing Institute.

“If the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. “To reduce food waste, it is important that consumers understand that the dates applied to food are for quality and not for safety.”

Here’s a list of commonly used phrases and what they mean:

  • Best if Used By/Before date indicates when a product will be of the best flavor or quality. It’s not a purchase or safety date.

  • “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It’s not a safety date.

  • “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It’s not a safety date.

  • “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It’s not a purchase or safety date.

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Are there any exceptions?

Yes, infant formula.

Federal regulations require a “use-by” date on infant formula under inspection by the Food and Drug Administration. Since products can deteriorate over time, consumption by “use-by” date ensures the formula contains the quantity of each nutrient as described on the label. Infant formula also must maintain an acceptable quality to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple, the USDA says.

Medora Lee is a money, markets, and personal finance reporter at USA TODAY. You can reach her at [email protected] and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Expired foods (or nearly) find new life amid inflation. Are they safe?

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