"Best Before" Purchasing
Question: I always check the "best before" date when shopping, and will often search among the items for a later date. Since the price is the same, I would rather have a fresher item. But for some items, such as milk, I know that my family will consume the product before even the early "best before" date. If I don't buy the item that will expire earlier, the store will end up throwing it away. (We have asked, and none of the large stores will give away food with expired dates, since they fear lawsuits if anyone gets sick.) This is wasteful, bad for the environment and costs the store money. Should I be buying the older item in these cases?
Answer: Your concern for food that may go to waste reminds us of what the Talmud (Mesechta Ta’anit 20b) relates concerning the Sage Rabbi Huna. Every Friday just before Shabbat he would send an agent to the local vegetable market with instructions to purchase all of the produce that had not been bought and to cast it into the river.
Two explanations of this policy are offered by the commentaries. Both agree that the Sage's purpose in buying the leftovers was to avoid the danger of the sellers' being discouraged from bringing their products to the market the following week. They also agree that he did not distribute these vegetables to the poor lest they develop total dependence on such handouts and fail to do their own purchasing, thus ending up with nothing for Shabbat when there were no leftovers that week.
Where the two explanations diverge is in regard to the purpose of putting the vegetables in the river. One approach is that he intended that they should float to another town where people would find them and consume them. A second approach is that he simply destroyed them in order to achieve his lofty goal of ensuring a steady supply.
In regard to your own question, it would be very noble of you to seek to eliminate waste and protect the environment. (Your consideration for the store's losing money sounds like Rabbi Huna's problem, but it is doubtful that your storekeeper would ever entertain the thought of not stocking up!) These considerations do not, however, obligate you to sacrifice your search for greater quality in your purchasing.