Turning expiring food into a sustainable business
By Chen Tong

Supermarkets regularly clear their shelves of perishable items that are nearing their "sell-by" dates, often offering special discounts to minimize losses. But they may have found a neater solution to disposing of these discounted food items.

Shanghai Doweidu Network has made the sale of soon-to-be-expired products its full-time business. Its app dealing exclusively in such items has become so popular that it has so far registered 130 million shoppers.

The Network's founder and CEO Lei Yong said he decided to take on the business of expiring food four years ago.

Lei said he has not only been helping out budget-conscious shoppers, he's helping supermarkets and their suppliers reduce food waste – a big headache that they don't talk about very much.

"Our country strictly protects the environment. Twenty years ago, you could just burn the expired products, but now you have to pay the environmental protection companies to deal with them, and that's a big loss for the suppliers," said Lei. "You produce a large amount of food every year, but you wind up having to destroy it because of the shortcomings in the supply chain. An immense amount of food – just think how many people that could feed."

Markets usually do not accept products after a third of the freshness guarantee period has lapsed. For example, if a pack of vegetables is guaranteed fresh for three weeks, it's not fit for sale after a week.

In those cases, suppliers have no choice but to take back the items and destroy them. That can mean big losses for the suppliers, but presents a big opportunity for Lei's company.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences estimates that 135 million tons of food every year is wasted in China, the most in any country worldwide. Still, how many people are going to buy food that is less than fresh in order to save some money?

"The major consumers are young professionals who may not be earning a lot, but who are well-educated. Housewives and college students who can tell what is good are also using our service. They have common sense – they're smart and are saving money to eat better," said Lei.

The G-Super market in downtown Shanghai said discounted food items were quite popular and it sold more than 20,000 yuan worth of those items close to their expiry date in the last half of November.

These food items are offered at different discounts, depending on the nearness of the expiration dates.

"Sales of room-temperature products like milk and chocolate are pretty good, and items that have been in cool storage like yogurt, steak and fast foods are also good. All of these are everyday food," said Lu Lei, G-Super Shanghai store manager.