Use it or lose it: Is expired food OK to sell?

September 21st, 2009 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Sankei Super's "mottainai" corner of expired foods references 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai

Sankei Super’s “mottainai” corner of expired foods references 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai

The great gyoza scare of a year-and-a-half ago supposedly made the Japanese public more concerned about food safety, but in the meantime a much more momentous scare happened: the worldwide recession. Consequently, frozen gyoza (pot stickers) from China — the main culprit in the food scare — is back on shelves and selling better than ever for no other reason than that it’s cheap.

Japanese consumers have always been noted for their discerning tastes in food, and the food distribution structure exploits this belief by limiting the kinds of foods that are available, in particular produce. Up until recently, fruits and vegetables that didn’t adhere to standards of size and shape were rejected by wholesalers because it was believed that people wouldn’t buy them, though the real reason is that enforced uniformity allows them to keep prices higher. But smaller and discount food stores have been openly selling this “irregular” produce and people buy it because it’s less expensive and tastes just as good as the nicely shaped stuff. So now many major supermarkets are also selling this non-standard produce, too.

The next frontier for the anti-food waste crusade is processed food that has passed its use-by date. In Japan, there are two kids of expiration notices printed on packaging — shomi kikan and shohi kikan, which respectively correspond to the English terms, “best-by date” and “use-by date.” Shomi kikan literally means the product “tastes best” before the printed date while shohi kikan means it must be “consumed” by the printed date.

Many items are still safe to eat after their best-by dates and sometimes even after their use-by dates have passed. Canned food is generally thought to be good at least ten years after it’s been processed and packaged. There are entire specialty stores in America and Europe where expired packaged foods are legally sold to the public at huge discounts.

The facade of Sankei Super

The facade of Sankei Super

In Japan, many food makers in the past few years have been famously caught out for manipulating expiration dates, which is easy to do since such dates are determined solely by the makers themselves. In some cases, if an unsold product is returned to them, they simply restamp it with a later date and ship it out again. Often, the food is perfectly OK, but fact is that they are engaging in fraud, and some companies have been fined and publicly humiliated.

It’s perhaps this nervousness about appearing to flout expiration dates that has prevented retailers from openly marketing packaged good past their best-by dates. Usually, such foods are either thrown away or given to food banks and other charitable groups.

There is only one food store in Tokyo that openly sells expired food — Sankei Super, which is located in a dense residential area near Kameido Station (3-59-15 Kameido, Koto-ku). Sankei’s prices are already rock bottom, so its “mottainai” (what a waste) corner seems like more of a PR gimmick than anything else, especially since it only takes up a small piece of space on the second floor back near the storage room. Nevertheless, that’s enough to attract a lot of media attention. Since last fall almost every TV wide show and major newspaper has covered Sankei. So far it doesn’t seem to have sparked any kind of consumer movement, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.

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