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Sunday, 29 March 2015

FREEGANS - Food Waste and Dumpster Diving, How Safe Is The Food?

Dumpster Diving - So much food tossed into food store waste bins. Is it safe for people eating from garbage bins?

(Updated: October 28, 2016)

by Jim Chan (Certified Public Health Inspector)

How much food does chain stores throw away?

A recent investigation by a Canadian Media firm (CBC Canada Marketplace) looking for food waste at all the major retailers, including Costco, Metro, Sobeys, Loblaws and Walmart. Reporters found bins and compactors full of food such as cartons of milk days ahead of their best-before date, Parmesan cheese in sealed containers. In one store, they found 12 waist-high bins full of food. They also found produce, baked goods, frozen foods, meat, bottles of water, frozen cherries, tubs of yogurt and dairy products in garbage bins. Most of the food was still in its original packaging and in many cases, the food was well before its best-before date and appeared to be fresh, food that supermarkets simply throw away to clear shelf space for newer products. Although these products are no longer deemed suitable for sale, they are not necessarily inedible.

Dumpster diving for food, are there any food safety risks?

Dumpster diving and sifting through the garbage and eating food inside a dumpster without knowing where it has been is risky behaviour that worries some public health officials and others in the food-safety field. The health risks are high for those who eat discarded food out of necessity, such as homeless people, low- or no-income food foragers, who dumpster dive for survival. For the past few years, there is a growing 'anti-consumer' movement to rescue discarded food from dumpsters such as waste bins behind restaurants, supermarkets, food depots.

This group of individuals, including some university students, likes to refer themselves to as “Freegans”, they are not necessary homeless but they often dine on food they salvaged from trash.

Let's take a closer look at what kind of risks involve in this dumpster diving lifestyle. Climbing inside a dumpster can be risky, these include possible cuts from sharp objects such as nails, knives, glass and other construction materials that can end up in the garbage bins. There is also a risk of foodbourne illness from pathogenic bacteria like E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria etc., especially in the summer, the dumpsters themselves breed bacteria, pests such as flies, roaches, rodents and some dumpsters are sprayed routinely by pest control operators with pesticides.

Food can come into contact with pathogens, chemicals and even human and animal wastes such as urine and fecal matter, which can be a very risky. 
There are also reasons why shoppers throw food out - food might have been spoiled, contaminated or left at the Danger Zone for a while. Washing food does not guarantee these contaminants or chemicals will be eliminated.

Despite warnings from public health officials, there does not appear to be conclusive evidence that the risks associated with dumpster diving have actually translated into health problems. I have been a health inspector for over 30 years, and I do not believe any cases I have heard of that there has been people who ate food from a dumpster and became ill. As hospital emergency departments, doctors’ offices, walk-in clinics and other health facilities are expected to report cases of foodbourne illness to public health agencies but no cases relating to any health complaints or concerns about dumpster diving have been received. However, the lack of reporting and a lack of research studies does not mean that people don’t become ill or injured from the trash as I do not think people eating food from a dumpster would disclose that information that they got sick from dumpster food. Despite these risks, dumpster diving movement continues to grow as rather than out of necessity, they believe this is one way to send a political message out to reduce food waste.  
     Food safety  at home
(Avoid food poisoning) 

Garbage and rat problem in restaurants

Related links:

CMAJ General Medical Journal- Health & Safety of Dumpster Diving

MetroToronto News: Metro News

Now:NOW article


  1. Why don't they lay a table out with the food on that they don't want in the shop and put a free food sign up?

    1. I know some small stores do this, they put aside leftover or food in boxes and left them near rear entrances for freegans or homeless people to pick up each night. Too bad large chain stores are not doing this, or at least, contact food banks to pick them up?

  2. Thanks for sharing such a useful information about Biomedical Waste Bins with users. Keep writing !!!

  3. I live in New York City and often see people digging through garbage bins behind restaurants and food markets for food. They are not necessary homeless people, some even look like business type. But when you can see the unnecessary wasted food being tossed out by these food businesses, it makes you sick (not from eating the food) that so much wastes in the society that can be used to feed hungry people or at least, use for bioenergy or composing projects that can help the environment. Thanks for sharing the post.

  4. I live in upstate NY and stores here won't even give me veggie scraps (cabbage leaves, old corn, etc. for my chickens. Dumpsters are sometimes locked with cameras watching them!!

    1. Too bad, the city should encourage business operators to be more eco-friendly, especially food scraps or by-products such as old produce, trimmings, veggies leaves etc.for animal feeds, composting etc.