Surplus groceries sold at auctions

Half-price cream cheese? And the brand name, no less! I saw they were getting close to their expiration dates, but I bought three, anyway. They’ll keep just fine in the freezer until I’m ready to bake another pumpkin cheesecake.

Lots of shoppers buy groceries with this money-saving mentality, which has opened the market for expired food sold at discounts. It has also sparked an increase in grocery auctions for the sale of damaged, dented or surplus foodstuffs that are often close to passing their expiration dates.

At Big Harry’s Auction in New Jersey, regular runs to regional food distribution centers and a wholesale food auction provide an ever-changing variety of food items for the public to bid on.

"And while Big Harry’s is subject to health department inspections and offers a money-back guarantee on food purchases," writes an Asbury Park Press staff writer, "buying frozen food at auction requires something of a leap of faith. [Auction operator Vince] Iacono says he’d never sell perishable frozen food that was thawed and then refrozen, which can cause spoilage, but all he can do is trust that his haulers will abide by the same policy."

That’s true for all food businesses: they have to rely on everyone before them in the farm-to-fork food chain to handle products as safely as they do. It’s always important to know your suppliers.

Food auctions: new trend in a down economy

While canning, freezing and growing food at home are increasing, so are discounted food sales. Sean Gregory writes in this week’s Time that food items are now appearing at auctions across the U.S.,

As the stock market headed south last fall, Ron Peterson, owner of Elmer Auction, LLC, added grocery items like cereals and cleaning supplies to his ledger. And they’ve sold, to the cash-strapped ladies and gentlemen sitting in each and every row. "People are skipping the decorative items," says Peterson, "and buying what they need."

The story goes on to give a couple of examples of what is being sold at these auctions:

Clyde DeHart, owner of DeHart’s Auction Service in Carlisle, Pa., takes "scratch n’ dent" items from a nearby BJ’s Wholesale Club store. Since BJ’s sells in bulk, if one can of corn gets smashed in the truck, the whole case can’t be displayed in the store. So DeHart takes the case, throws out the bad can, and auctions off the rest.

Some items are near or slightly past their sell-by dates, but these days, expiration won’t keep shoppers from a discount. Other stuff is just sitting on the shelves, and will go to waste if it’s not auctioned off.

At a grocery auction in early April, [Randy Zimmerman, mother of seven] bought hot dogs, frozen pizzas and an Easter ham, among other items. Zimmerman figures all the stuff she bought would have cost $300 in the grocery store. She paid $100.

Ripped bulk packaging isn’t that much of a risk, but anything where the integrity of the direct packaging has been comprimised (such as a dented can) would be something to avoid.

It’s not surprising that alternative (and cheaper) sources for food are popping up — and that folks are seeking them out. The biggest issue with some of the items mentioned would be temperature control — hard to trust that foods like Easter hams and hot dogs were held at the refrigeration temperatures after leaving (or being set aside) by the retailer. Handling of bulk fruits and vegetables by auctioneers and their staff could also lead to food safety problems.