Our report on Wal-Mart's practice of throwing out "sell-by" dated food aired almost 11 months after we first received a call from a News 4 viewer complaining about what she witnessed at her local Sam's Club.
Phyllis Cantor is active in her synagogue's food pantry and outreach programs and so is keenly aware of the enormity of the need among the disadvantaged in our area. After seeing Sam's Club workers load up carts with fresh food and learning it was all being thrown in the trash, Phyllis sparked passage of a Missouri law known as "The Good Samaritan Act of 2006." Section 192.081, Revised Statues of Missouri was written directly in response to Wal-Mart's policies.
The next year, she noticed nothing had changed. So she called News 4 Investigates. That was in January, 2007.
In the spring, we began what would become about a seven month investigation of Wal-Mart's and other stores' policies regarding "sell by" dated food. When we called the spokesperson for a locally-owned grocery chain to ask about their policy regarding sell-by food we were somewhat surprised to hear that we were not the first to call inquiring about this very topic. In fact, we were told that "several local journalists" had explored the possibility of doing a story on Wal-Mart's policy.
But nobody followed through. No one reported this story.
If you Google "Wal-Mart thrown away food" you will find only a few references, and only one major newspaper story written specifically about the policy, which according to that report has been in place since early 2006.
So, why hasn't anyone else done it? More importantly, why did we?
We can only speculate as to why all those other local journalists who reportedly looked into this story backed off. But my guess is that it's because of Wal-Mart's large financial contributions to national food bank networks like America's Second Harvest and charitable donations in general. Wal-Mart is the largest corporate charitable donor in the nation.It's possible after learning that, other reporters figured a story about throwing out some food which has reached its "sell-by" date isn't all that big a deal.
But for us, this is not a story about what Wal-Mart is doing. It's a story about what the company is not doing, and common sense. And it is a big deal... with really big numbers.
As we reported in our story, each year Wal-Mart company stores throw away at least enough food to cover an NFL football field 14 stories deep. This is by a very conservative estimate (as figured by a professor at a prestigious Missouri engineering school - hey, you don't think we'd trust ourselves with math this big, do you?) Remember, this is not spoiled food, not tainted food, but food that has simply reached the "sell by" date on the wrapper; food that health safety experts agree is perfectly safe, and that is regularly donated by every other major grocer in the St. Louis area.
This at the same time food pantries nationwide -- including America's Second Harvest, which benefits from Wal-Mart donations -- are calling attention to serious shortages in food supplies.
Missouri Governor Matt Blunt feels strongly about this issue. When informed of our investigation the governor sent a personal letter to Wal-Mart CEO, H. Lee Scott, encouraging him to change company policy. U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson R-Mo. is considering doing the same. Congresswoman Emerson has special reason to care about this issue, Her late husband, Bill Emerson, sponsored the 1996 federal Good Samaritan Act which offers legal protection to retailers which donate food or other items to charity in good faith.
Wal-Mart is promising to announce additional donation efforts later this week. It's not clear if those new policies will include donating sell-by foods to food pantries.
If you would like to offer your opinion on what Wal-Mart should be doing with this food, you can try contacting the following:
Governor Matt Blunt
Rep. Jane Cunningham
Introduced 2006 Good Samaritan Act in Missouri.
Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson
News 4 Investigates producer Steve Perron produced this report and contributed to this edition of the Daily Briefing.