2008.04.09 How old is that mayo on the shelf?

Written by David Green.


How brave are you when it comes to saving money on food? I recently saw a network news report on a new trend in the grocery industry—stores that deal solely with unwanted and outdated food.

Apparently this idea is really big in Pennsylvania, where the news reporter interviewed an owner of 17 such stores. The economy has many shoppers going to unusual lengths to save on their food budget.

Some of the food is simply in containers the manufacturer no longer wishes on the shelves. For example, several products, including cereal, were manufactured in boxes or bags tying in with the recent “Spiderman” movie.

Now that the movie is long gone from theaters, the manufacturers want to get rid of product in outdated packaging, and most supermarkets pass on it as well, even though it may be well within the sell-by date. The result, a bargain for shoppers at the closeout store.

That part of the business I can understand, but a huge part of the inventory in these closeout stores is simply outdated food of most all varieties. According to the report, the only products not allowed to be sold after their expiration dates are baby food and milk. Anything else is fair game for customers with little cash but strong stomachs and a taste (ha!) for adventure.

The reporter and the store manager even sampled some outdated cereal and granola bars with no ill effect. I wouldn’t have had a problem sampling them, either, but I noticed no one wanted to open the expired mayonnaise and try a spoonful.

The jar they showed was four months past its sell-by date and the manager bragged that it looked the same as fresh, but no taste test followed. I wonder how much they have to mark it down to find a willing buyer?

I would think that running a store based on outdated inventory is a bit of an black art. You’d have to have a good grasp on the relative “oldness” of each part of your inventory and at what points you have to discount the prices again to keep merchandise selling,  before you end up with products so old, no one will take them, no matter how cheap. Except, maybe, as a publicity stunt.

No doubt, many of you remember the famous Observer Miracle Donuts, first written about in this space eight years ago. A product of the previous millennium, they will be nine years old this December and still happily inhabit the Observer back room along with other assorted non-food oddments.

Although several donuts remain, they are largely out of sight and pose no real threat to anyone. Not so lucky is the Oregon state owner of a way out of date gallon of milk, whose girlfriend recently complained about him to syndicated advice columnist “Dear Abby.”

According to the writer, her new boyfriend, “Leon,” bought a gallon of milk five years ago when he got his first apartment. He didn’t drink it as fast as he had guessed he would and soon it was three weeks out of date. Then, time flew and it was suddenly six months old. As the owner of an ancient box of donuts, I know how this could happen.

Now, the remainder of the milk is nearing five years of age and Leon has kept it through two roommates, three girlfriends, seven jobs and get this, two refrigerators. The girlfriend complains that Leon is entertained by the reaction the milk gets when people learn of it, and it even has its own internet blog with a photo. Now there’s something I hadn’t thought of, a donut blog.

The girlfriend asked Abby if she should ask him to give up the milk, accept it, or leave. Abby answered that the milk seemed to be the only constant in Leon’s life and if he didn’t want to give it up, she would have to take the two as a package deal or “moove on.” I suspect by now Leon is looking for girlfriend number four.

I would never buy old milk and already have enough donuts, but last week I bought a product that’s sure to end up at the outdated food store. I noticed a box of Hershey bars for 49 cents at the cash register of a Wauseon store. It said something about “crisp bits” on the label and I was halfway home before I noticed it really said “with crisp corn bits,” with “corn” in microscopic type.

Yes, chocolate covered pieces of corn. Whose idea was this? It’s almost enough to make me want to resample a donut. Maybe with some finely aged Oregon milk. Or not. But please, hold the mayo.

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