Ashley Chaifetz, a PhD student studying public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill writes,
Food safety and food quality are not the same, especially when you are in a dumpster searching for food to eat.
NPR’s The Salt covered Maximus Thaler, a “semi-professional dumpster diver with a moral purpose” and his organization, The Gleaners’ Kitchen.
“You look at the food and you smell the food … using your senses is really important,” Thaler says.
While vegetables may get mushy and cheeses might mold, it’s nothing that Thaler can’t cut off or cook up. He says the only thing that’s really risky is meat.
“I would never eat a rare steak out of the dumpster,” he says. “Don’t take the meat that’s obvious discolored,” he advises. Eggs, on the other hand, are fine, he says, as long as they don’t smell absurdly strong of sulfur.
“There are complex systemic reasons why there is so much food waste in this country, but at their core is the fact that most Americans have forgotten what good food is.” He argues that humans have evolved to know what good food is, and we don’t need the Food and Drug Administration or sell-by dates to tell us that.
The dates on food packages are certainly flawed but it isn’t because of the FDA. No federal agency regulates the dates on packaging, except for baby formula. Manufacturers and retailers add various kinds of dates to their foods—and use sell-by, best-by, or use-by to help consumers make choices about the quality, not safety, of the items.
Humans have no special ability to smell Salmonella, or E.coli, or any other pathogen that might be reason a grocery has tossed the food into the dumpster (and neither do dogs). Every item Thaler mentioned (vegetables, cheese, meat, and eggs) has been recalled due to pathogen contamination or foodborne illness risk within the last 5 years. Just because he hasn’t gotten sick does not mean the food is zero risk.
I agree with Thaler’s suggestion that more food is wasted than it should be—and certain grocery stores are better than others at donating their barely-damaged fruits and vegetables to food pantries and food banks.
It’s not that I think dumpster diving is intrinsically bad. It’s that the advocates often fail to adequately address certain issues, like food safety.