By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

One day not that long ago, as I was pumping gas in Bozeman, I saw an employee wheel a large Rubbermaid cart through the parking lot. It was packed with frozen pizzas, Hot Pockets and some other freezer items not easily identifiable.

I triangulated her trajectory. She was headed for the dumpster. I watched as she held the lid open with one hand and began tossing the boxes in with the other.

I approached the woman. “Those must be expired,” I said.

“Yep,” she said.

“I would take some of those off your hands,” I said with a smile. I wasn’t interested in personally consuming any of the items, but I knew I could find someone who would.

Her answer was shocking.

“Oh no, sir,” she said. “No one is allowed to take expired foods.”

By her conviction and apparent adherence to whatever rules she followed, one would have thought she was being asked to hand over government secrets, mishandle biochemical materials or worse yet, tear the tag off a mattress.

“Well I’d like to take them to the homeless man I just saw on the corner,” I said. Now, simply out of principle, I was as irritated as she was.

“Sir, I cannot allow you to take these!” She was clearly agitated by now.

“Well that’s unfortunate,” I said.

As I walked away, I reflected that not long ago, I wrote about what to do with leftovers in the refrigerator. And yet this employee’s rule was to discard a cart full of frozen foods. Not fresh, but frozen foods.

Why such ardent fear?

You might be wondering who would want to eat a Hot Pocket in the first place, let alone an expired one. While I agree, the fact is that it’s highly unlikely there was anything wrong with the food being tossed in the dumpster.

Through my profession, travels and all-around curiosity, I’ve come across many statistics that fascinate me. Friends say I accumulate useless information. But this particular fact I learned in a film entitled “Just Eat It” is truly astounding. According to this documentary, 40 percent of all food grown, raised or produced in the U.S. goes to waste. When I heard that, I didn’t even know what to think.

Worse yet, there are no federal laws on expiration dates. Consequently, each state’s date labeling laws are not based in science. “The practice around dating of foods in this country is just a complete mess,” says Don Schaffner, food scientist at Rutgers University, in the short film “Expired? Food Waste in America.”

And while we have much to be proud of in Montana, food labeling is not one of them. Montana is one of the worst states when it comes to sensible food labeling.

Take milk for example. Milk is a fully pasteurized product. That means that as awful as it may taste, it cannot make you physically ill. Yet its expiration dates in Montana are over a week earlier than other states. And not only is it not salable, it’s also illegal to donate.

According to No Kid Hungry, there are 13 million malnourished children in the U.S., yet we pour milk down the drain days earlier than other states. Perhaps this could move up on the list of things to do in Helena.

With items such as peaches, bananas and tomatoes regularly discarded simply because marketers have deemed them aesthetically unpleasing, imagine how many underprivileged children could be fed with even a fraction of food that’s been unwisely tossed out.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.