Most food that Andollo finds in the trash is either expiring that day, expired the day before or is going to expire a day or two in the future. When he first moved to the city in September 2009, he was struggling financially and didn’t have enough money to eat, so he looked into dumpster diving. Now, 100 percent of what he eats is what he calls “rescued” food.
Experts say that expiration dates don’t tell the whole story of food safety. Trash pickers can’t know how the food was handled before it was thrown out.
“Sell-by” dating on food products, for example, helps stores determine how long to display the product for sale. Except for infant formula, these dates are not required by federal law.
Most people would find this food in their pantry and say, “‘mmm… still smells good,’ and those are really good indicators,” Andollo said.
But Ed Carloni, a principal sanitarian at the New York State Department of Health, said using one’s five-senses to judge whether if food is edible is unwise.
“The food doesn’t have to have mold on it or smell or anything to be food that causes a problem,” he said.
If something from a restaurant is in the garbage then it should not be eaten: the food is going in the dumpster for a reason, Carloni said. Part 14 of the New York State Sanitary Code states that unused and potentially hazardous food may not be served again.
Dr. Mike Huang, clinical assistant instructor in the Department of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook University, said that some foods from the trash are safe to eat but could be easily contaminated by “garbage juice.” He said there is a difference between finding perishable vs. non-perishable food items.
“It really depends on the surface of the food,” Huang said. “If you take an example of an apple that’s intact, the surface is firm and resilient, it is impenetrable.” But, an apple with a broken skin that was sitting in garbage could be infected and could transmit viruses that could put a person in the hospital, he said. Some people are more sensitive to infection than others.
“It depends on how much they ingested and what their immune composition is,” Dr. Huang said. “If they are not too healthy there is a chance that the bacteria can win, and you can get very sick.”
Andollo claims that he eats better now than when he was paying for food. Still, there is a stigma attached to eating food thrown in the garbage and participants are “sort of embarrassed by the need to do it.” Many, he said, question the legality of trash picking.
In 1988, California vs. Greenwood was a Fourth Amendment case that applied to the legality of dumpster diving. The verdict was that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the search and seizure of garbage left for collection.
Back at Whole Foods, Kalish was teaching the group interested in trash picking the secrets to a successful dive. “Who here has dived before?” she asked. The majority of people raised their hands.
After Kalish ran through a list of dumpster diving tips – don’t make a mess, wear protective clothing, know the laws – the group bundled up and headed into the cold. Sitting on the curb in front of the store were three bags full of barely stale bread from a local bakery. Kalish told the group the bread had gone from the shelves to the trash just because it could not be sold the next day.
Kalish said she doesn’t know what she will eat next week. But she won’t buy anything, and she will still have food on the table. She said she lives a perfectly happy and fulfilled life by living off the waste of others and giving what she doesn’t need to those less fortunate.
“How much do we need?” she said. “Do we really need all this extra stuff to be happy people?”