Two years ago, Guangzhou student Lily bought a box of soy milk close to its expiration date at one-third of its original price.
She was ecstatic with the deal and shared it with a friend, but the friend said eating food near the expiration date was a health risk. After this, Lily avoided telling people about such bargains, fearing they might think of her as excessively frugal.
But she continued to purchase near expired food at reduced prices. Despite keeping her bargain shopping from friends, she established an online community of more than 57,000 people, who share tips on buying near-expired food every day.
“I see online that lots of people buy similar foods, and I get reassured that there‘s nothing wrong with this behaviour,” she said.
It’s a trend that has gained more traction in recent years, especially since China passed a new Anti-Food Waste Law in April.
It declared that restaurants that “induce or mislead” customers into ordering excessively will be fined. The law also banned “eating shows” or “competitive eaters” on social media.
According to a 2020 report from the National People’s Congress, Chinese cities waste close to 18 billion kilograms of food every year.
Even before the law came into place, some supermarkets in China had already created specific rows for discounted near-expired food.
At the Yongwang Supermarket in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, there’s a basket at the end of each food aisle full of pasta, tea, oil and hotpot sauce, usually within two months of expiration.
A salesperson surnamed Liu said the foods there are sold at 70 per cent off, and staff go through the products every day to make sure none had passed their expiry date.
“It certainly cuts a lot of waste,” she said. Supermarkets are required to dispose of food past their expiration dates and having them at discounts boosts sales.
For years, the elderly have been hunting for expiry bargains to save money. But gradually, young people are starting to adopt the trend.
Lily said at the beginning, she wondered whether near-expiration food can damage one’s health, but found the pricing attractive.
“A bread shop sells rolls at 50 per cent after 4pm every day,” she said. “Other shops sell at the discount of 70 or 80 per cent. If I can eat them quickly, I’ll choose to buy those.”
On the Douban channel she created, called “I love near-expired food”, members exchange tips on brands, online shops to purchase from, as well as which foods have better flavours.
One popular post on the channel asks: “Are you ashamed of buying near-expired food?” Most replies said there’s no shame in saving money and not wasting food.
Videos exploring storage areas and shops that sell these foods have also proved popular. One vlogger on Bilibili went into a Beijing store with 100 yuan ($21) and bought a shopping trolley full of snacks.
In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, shops and storage areas dedicated to near-expired food have also sprung up, to meet the demand.
HotMaxx, a shop that sells exclusively near-expired food with a 50 to 80 per cent discount, has rapidly expanded since 2020, with more than 50 shops in Shanghai alone. It has established deals with more than 200 famous food brands, including Italian confectionery company Ferrero and Taiwan snack manufacturer Want Want.
However, right now near-expired food is still a niche market, as the Chinese government has no policy encouraging such behaviour or regulating the market, but the industry has picked up since the anti-food waste law was passed.
Just this month, a government supervision team in Nanjing found a bread shop had thrown away bread that they hadn’t been able to sell and was found to be in violation of the anti-food waste law, the first time the law has been used in the city.
Media propaganda has also increased. This month, China’s state broadcaster CCTV featured Lily’s channel as an example of an anti-food waste campaign boosting her subscribers by 10,000 people.
“Even though people like us have always existed, it’s because of the law that people started noticing,” she said. “Previously many never paid any special attention.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.