Cafeteria workers win right to eat expired food at their own risk
June 12th, 2012
08:00 PM ET
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While some New Yorkers are fighting for their right to drink sugary beverages, unionized cafeteria workers in a small Western Pennsylvania school district have fought for - and won - their right to eat expired foods.

On Monday, Sharon, Pennsylvania newspaper The Herald reported that members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees filed a grievance against the Sharpsville Area School District over a disagreement as to what cafeteria workers were allowed to eat.

Neither ASCME nor the school district returned CNN’s calls for comment, but according to The Herald, the grievance accused the school district of inappropriately changing their policy on charging workers for food or drinks that according to safe food regulations were no longer permitted to be sold to students. The paper reported these provisions could be foods that had cooled and been reheated, or even food or drinks past their expiration date. The grievance claimed cafeteria workers should be allowed to eat and drink those expired foods free of charge.

The settlement reached by ASCME and the school district was approved by a unanimous vote of the school board last month. It permits the cafeteria workers to eat the post-prime portions at their own risk, as long as they do not sell or share the items with anyone else and pay for any other items they choose to eat or drink.

While labor unions help hungry employees, the United States Department of Agriculture sees to it hungry students are fed.

In fiscal year 2010, more than 31.7 million children each day got their lunch through the National School Lunch Program. Since the modern program began, more than 219 billion lunches have been served according to the USDA which oversees the program.

In January, the USDA issued new standards requiring school cafeterias to offer fruits and vegetables to students every day, and reduce sodium, saturated fat and trans fat content. Schools must also offer more whole grains as well as fat-free or low-fat milk varieties.

According to the USDA, these standards go into effect July 1 and will be phased in over a three-year period.

Read more about school lunch policy

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Filed under: Food Politics • Human Rights • Hunger • School Lunch

soundoff (69 Responses)
  1. Pete

    In college I was a waiter at a restaurant that would cook off a few dinners and put them at the hostess stand for patrons to see when they arrived. The food cooked food would sit thee for up to 8 hours. When the night ended I would eat it. I never became ill. At another job I worked a night shift and would search the waste cans for food disposed by employees at lunch. Sometimes I would find a half uneaten sandwich, and eat it. I never became ill. Let the cafeteria workers eat the food.

    June 22, 2012 at 5:23 am |
  2. R Burns

    Expiration dates are often more "best used by" dates for the best taste and quality rather than a safety issue. I think the workers should be allowed to consume what they want of these foods, within reason, while on the premises and the rest given to charity. Often very good food is thrown away while people go hungry, and this should be avoided when possible!

    June 15, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  3. Lud

    Coming from Europe, I am speachless about this.
    They are selling expired food to the cafeteria employees? Is that legal in the US? Here it illegal to sell expired food.
    Then regarding to CNN's poll: Think the order of the options were quite misleading, making most select the first option.

    Throwing away perfectly good food is a no-no, but sadly the logistics involved can indeed lead to that. But that depends on the effort and interest put in it.

    The article did not provide insight into the possiblities; only that the staff was charged for the expired meals. That simply cannot be tolerated.

    June 15, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Adriana

      It didn't say they paid for the expired food, they pay for any other items they eat.

      June 22, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  4. Peter

    While I certainly don't want to see food go to waste, I do worry that this could create a kind of perverse incentive for food service workers to not use food that is near its expiration date in order to allow it to expire. The expired food should be discounted, but not given out for free.

    June 15, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  5. Jim W

    * will *

    June 14, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  6. Jim W

    FYI: The "expiration" date does NOT mean that the food with instantaneously spoil at midnight on the date listed. It is generally a date for retailers to sell the item before the expiration date. "Best by- " and "Use by- " dates are the same. Dairy products, if properly refrigerated, are good well beyond the given date. There may be some deterioration in quality, but it is certainly safe to use. If in doubt, smell it. If you don't think it smells ok, don't use it (but don't just put it back in the fridge, either...). Likewise, eggs are good for up to 5 weeks after their "expiration" date. In fact they make much better hard-cooked eggs because they are easier to peel. Lagne, as a chef, you should know better. I understand that you can't use the products for retail food service, but they are almost certainly safe to consume otherwise.

    June 14, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • lagne

      I should "know better?" Nowhere did I say that expired foods are unsafe to consume; I said that many people aren't careful about donating expired food that's still usable, and that's a serious problem with allowing expired-food donations. Not sure where your confusion is.

      June 15, 2012 at 1:57 am |
  7. jillmarie

    Most food that is at it's expiration date is fine. That food should be allowed to be given to the workers, with anything else left over be given to a food bank, IMO. None of the workers are properly compensated for what they do, I am sure. They deserve at least a meal that would otherwise be trashed.
    There is enough waste out there, it is mutually beneficial for this food not to end up in a landfill.

    June 14, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Dave Mishem

      No. You guys have no idea how food retail works. If you've ever worked in a fast food restaurant, you would know that it's not about food waste. The workers control how much food is prepared, and can control indirectly how much is wasted. I used to work at a pizza joint as a teenager, and at the end of our shift we would always have several slices of the good stuff "left over" which we would eat instead of "letting it go to waste". Every day. Multiply that by a whole year and you see why owners don't like the idea.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  8. Oddly enough

    If the food is not going to be used anyway, what's the big deal? If the cafeteria workers want it, let them have it. Just make them sign a waiver. And even though the food might be expired, in most cases that doesn't mean the food is actually spoiled by that date. Just that there can be no guarantee that it will still be good. Most people have the brains to smell milk or yoghurt or meats and determine what has actually gone bad.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  9. MarkGlicker

    When they get sick, here come the lawsuits.

    June 13, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  10. Jayzus

    No they do not have a "right" to it. How absurd.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:08 am |
  11. oldguy

    Just as in grocery stores, inventory should be managed so that food is used or sold before expiration dates, using price incentives as necessary as expiration dates approach. Or distributed through charities, before the expiration dates.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:47 am |
  12. doza

    There is definitely waste in the food industry. In this case, good for the workers for recognizing the waste and creating a soloution.

    A friend of mine worked at the training facility for a Big 10 football college program. Game day waste was more, quality, expensive food than her family saw in a five year period. Rules were the rules, though. The excess could not be carted off to the food shelters and the workers weren't allowed to touch any of it. It all went into the trash. Ridiculous. If the charities couldn't accept it, then the most honorable thing to do would be to allow the workers to take it home. Eat it, freeze it, whatever, but absolutely not allowed. Just ridiculous.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:42 am |
  13. Fiona

    Let them chow down, but get a good lawyer to work up a solid waiver of liability, and have them all sign. Personally, I wouldn't eat anything that was "leftover" and reheated. Sealed food that is past it's use-by date is another thing. It's more often than not perfectly safe.

    I have gotten food poisoning too many times (from restaurqnts) to be casual about food safety. I came down with Norovirus at an Eco-resort that had an iffy restaurant/cafeteria as the only source of food for miles. I'm sure I got sick from the salad buffet table and the drink dispensers.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:39 am |
  14. David

    At Jack-in-The-Box in 1980, all damaged or leftover food had to go into a bucket in the freezer to be inventoried by the manager. Employees were not allowed to benefit from declaring something to be inedible.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:33 am |
  15. sharoom

    A lot of comments here are saying that this creates an incentive for people to make more food than needed. I think the problem with that argument is that the food in question here is expired. This isn't really freshly cooked stuff from the morning. This is prepackaged stuff from days or maybe even weeks back.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:47 am |
  16. Bill

    We waste a HUGE amount of food in this country that could be going to the poor. There are some things like milk that I would never use past expiration, but a sandwich does not magically breed maggots 15 seconds after it "expires" frozen and canned items are often good for weeks or months after they supposedly "expire". Of course with our lawyer crazy society let the eater beware, but seriously why throw out food that people could use?

    June 13, 2012 at 1:33 am |
  17. AaronT3

    Does anyone beside myself feel it's a disgrace to have people paid sooo little, that they need to fight for the right to eat expired goods? America the Beau. . . something else.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:05 am |
    • Carol

      My thoughts exactly

      June 13, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • Fiona

      Aaron, did you even read the piece? I doubt you did, because if you had read it you might have even the word UNIONIZED before the words "cafeteria workers". I believe they are very well paid for what they do. This is a matter of fairness and, perhaps, frugality. In case you still don't get it, they are trying to avoid BEING CHARGED for food they have been eating anyway.

      Yes it is America the beautiful, and if you don't like it here you can freaking leave.

      June 13, 2012 at 2:45 am |
      • dozapolis

        Eh, my best friend's mom work as a unionized cafeteria worker while he was in grade school, trust me they made little. Unions do not = cash money, as the grocer who is forced to join the union.

        June 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
      • mikeindm

        Now, Fiona. This *IS* America, where we have free speach. Seems kinda ironic you tell someone to leave because they exercised their constitutional right.

        June 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
      • anticon.

        Right, because unionized = lucrative pay automatically. Just out of curiosity, are you writing this from 1965?

        Aaron is right. this is shameful that it's even an issue, and reflects pretty damn poorly upon this country and the society within it. Far from beautiful that people are fighting for past due food.

        (and to be clear: came here as an immigrant, know you're wrong, don't like it, still not leaving.)

        June 20, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  18. Dale Smith

    Seen this too many times. For instance, I once had friends who worked at KFC, they would allow employees to take home any "Left Overs" at the end of the night. So The crew would cook more than they could sell and take home the rest . All this does is lead to more waste and people cooking more than they need to or letting things run out of date so they can get something for nothing.
    Why does everyone think that they are owed something? Why does everyone think they should get something for nothing?

    June 13, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • deeter

      I think you have a valid point about cooking more food with the intention to steal it (and at that point it is stealing), however school cafeterias have (or should have) records of what was sold and how much, so it becomes an accounting issue when sales vs production do not add up. When there is legitimate extra food, the employees may as well have it, because they cannot give it to the students, but I agree that there is a chance for abuse, and that it would be an easy fix. Just make sure they sign a liability waiver, lol.

      June 13, 2012 at 12:56 am |
  19. lagne

    As a chef, I can tell you that the problem of donating expired prepared foods to food banks is that it's a slippery slope – how long can the food have been expired? An hour? A day? A week? Expired is expired, and it puts people who patronize food banks – some of whom are already immuno-compromised, like children, the homeless, or people who suffer from malnutrition – at high risk of foodborne illness, and very few of them have the resources to seek medical treatment when they're sickened. Some of these people are so desperate for food that they'd eat pretty much anything offered – that's where the slippery slope comes in. Not everyone is fastidious about making sure donated food is safe, unfortunately.

    If an otherwise healthy employee knowingly, willingly eats expired food, their immune system is much more equipped to handle any bacteria or pathogens that might be present. While I'm sure some employees would tweak supply to ensure lots of "expired" product at the end of the day, in many cases, they wouldn't really even have to – any foodservice worker knows that, at the end of a day/shift, there's almost ALWAYS food left over, and the food cannot be sold or donated because of the reasons above. I say let the workers at it. You can bet that, regardless of what they're allowed to do, the shady employees will find ways to help themselves, whether or not they're allowed to.

    June 13, 2012 at 12:35 am |
  20. Steve

    I eat food thats well beyond it's "date"

    Haven't threw up or died yet......................:D

    June 12, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  21. jason

    As long as it is good. Bad food should be discarded.
    My wife works at a casino where the employees are fed leftovers from the previous days patron buffet. The casino gives them a great price. She has stopped eating there because of significant food-related reactions. Let's call it "Office Hostile". It does not have to be expired to be bad.

    June 12, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • steve

      They charged you? I used to work at a catering hall and they let us eat whatever was leftover (except the meat, the boss horded that for himself). I had to stop and switch to bread and coke cause the stuff was so heavily processed my stomach couldn't hold it for more than a few hours.

      June 12, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
  22. andyoo

    expired food is still good. just going to turn bad soon. you can't sell it anyway.

    June 12, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  23. The truth

    If we were all atheists this wouldn't have happened

    June 12, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • Tim Liao

      You need to check your facts about who gives most to charities in this country; it sure ain't the Aethist

      June 13, 2012 at 1:19 am |
  24. David

    If practical, it should go to a charity. Giving it to the workers gives them an incentive to produce too much food or hide it or otherwise find a way to make sure they can get it. Putting some extra food out right at the end of the lunch period so you're sure to get what you want seems like an easy strategy.

    June 12, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
    • whozits

      Charities began refusing expired foods and leftovers from restaurants and catering companies a few years ago after soup kitchen 'guests' sued when they got sick from poorly handled food that came as leftovers from a catering company. Some will still accept leftovers that were never opened nor removed from appropriately heated/ cooled transit containers but nothing that was ever opened. While Alda's may sell foods past their expiration, food pantries may not. They may have foods near or at expiration but nothing past expiration. They can't afford the scandal.

      June 12, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • trollol

      Wrong, there will always be left overs. Imagine if the cafeteria didn't produce enough food. Students would go hungry! That would be totally unacceptable. It is better to produce a little too much than not enough.

      June 13, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  25. dave836

    I don't get why not. I mean, foods don't go bad exactly on the expiration date.

    I've volunteered at the food bank and I think they said we can accept canned foods up to 2 months after their expiration date. Now that's canned foods so it obviously has a lot more preservatives, but the same concept can be applied to other types of food too.

    June 12, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • Seren D.O

      Technically it's an average, sometimes it lasts less and sometimes it lasts more. If it looks good and your taste buds don't detect alkaloid levels above normal or other sensations then you can eat it.

      June 12, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
  26. Tim Liao

    The problem is that you may have employees purposefully mislabeling or manipulating dates to take otherwise good food. Supermarkets use to have policies where they would give discounts on items damaged until they realized employees were damaging the food themselves.

    June 12, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  27. donny

    food banks help many out in need..

    June 12, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
  28. Pete

    Let them have it. It'd be a waste otherwise because they aren't going to be serving it to anyone. Most food is still good for a little while after it "expires". Do you really think the food will magically rot like Cinderellas carraige the minute it expires? I think not.

    June 12, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
  29. donny

    I think it should be given to charity.. thats what i think

    June 12, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  30. engineer

    It's pretty sad that people make so little that they have to fight for the right to eat expired food. Charging for this food would be illegal anyway as you can't sell food past the expiration date.

    June 12, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  31. Michael Wilcox

    It would be a shame to waste perfectly good food, but you know some food workers would stash stuff that they like and let it expire so they would not have to pay for it. Then it is up to management to watch their inventory. A policy to allow expired food consumption, gratis, is just begging for abuse. Now, if everyone was honest, regardless of their salary, then it would not be an issue.

    June 12, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
  32. Ron

    If it's something that either gets eaten or thrown away, the workers should definitely be given the opportunity to eat it. If it's prepackaged food that will still be good for quite a while after the expiration date, it should be donated to a food bank of some sort so the most needy will have first crack at it.

    June 12, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  33. John T Draper

    While it's true that food is often still okay to eat for a day or two after the expiration date, I don't see how the employees have a right to it. My employees don't have the right to any overage or expired goods I purchased. Even if I don't have the right to sell it to the public, it still belongs to me and I have the right to dispose of it as I see fit.

    I believe in worker's rights. I believe that every American should have a clean, safe workplace, free of harrassment. But entitled to their employers' property – expired or otherwise? I think not.

    June 12, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  34. Ken

    Sometimes in kitchens, food is dated to the hour of expiration, so if something is dated to expire at 3pm, and the worker wants to eat it at 5pm, let them, it's going to end up in the trash anyway, why make someone who is probably making close to minimum wage pay for something that would be thrown away anyway? But if it is something extremely perishable or if it is long past the expiration date they should not eat it, and being food workers I assume they have some common sense about that.

    June 12, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  35. Matthew

    If they want to eat expired food, it's fine with me, but what I don't understand is why they should get it for free. The school district paid for that food, and the fact that it can't be served to children anymore doesn't suddenly transfer ownership of the food to the cafeteria workers. This is no different than expired products at the grocery store – the fact that the products are expired doesn't suddenly entitle shoppers to simply what they want. They workers can eat whatever food they desire, but they should have to pay at least some token amount to buy what isn't theirs.

    June 12, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  36. Erin

    And when they call in sick? If the food make them sick, will it be worker's comp? Please.

    June 12, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Emily

      Worker's compensation doesn't pay for sick leave. It pays for injury sustained in the normal course of the job while on the clock. Most employees would eat while off the clock and if they are union members, they probably receive sick pay. That's like a teacher trying to claim worker's comp because one of her students gave her the flu!

      June 12, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
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