Purchasing of Fresh Grocery Products Ultimately Consumers' Responsibility

MARCH 1, 2004 -- Posted at: 11:15pm

TRUMANN/JONESBORO, AR - When you walk into the grocery store, you're usually in a hurry -- juggling the cell phone, the kids and the keys. When you're in a rush, you don't have time to look at prices, let alone labels lining cans.

Unfortunately, there is no universal system when it comes to dates on the foods we eat in the United States; although a food dating is required by more than 20 states. A bill was introduced in the U S House of Representatives last year to establish a uniform safety warning system, but it died in the Subcommittee on Health in July. That means for many Americans, tracking expiration dates is left mostly to us.

"It's just become very apparent that the problem is still very real," said Valerie Cornwell, a resident of Trumann. "It has increased. It's gotten worse over the years, instead of better."

The main reason Cornwell stopped shopping at the Price Chopper supermarket in Trumann was because of expired food that she said had lined the shelves.

Cornwell explained, "I basically am no longer a customer at the grocery store, because of the conditions of the store."

On January 22, we sent a KAIT employee into the store to inspect some of the products for himself. After about 15 minutes, he returned with a bag full of a variety of items. Use by dates from last year include: Gerber Peaches baby food -- September 14; Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry sheets: July 31; Hi-C drink boxes: June 27 and Gerber Graduates Vegetable Stew with Beef: January 10, 2003.

Triaminic, a children's cold medicine, expired in November 2002, and a bottle of Vanquish pain reliever expired in April 2002.

"Sometimes if they're not rotating their stock, certain items will get pushed back and will not be sold by the sell by date, or it could be an item that just doesn't sell very well," said Terry Baker, an employee of the Arkansas Department of Health and based in Poinsett County.

As old as some of the items are, Terry Baker said it's not illegal to have them on store shelves.

Baker explained, "Normally, if a product doesn't show anything, any sign of bacteria growth, or change in color -- if it's simply older than the sell by date, most of the time it's still sound; OK to eat it."

In fact, the only thing the Food and Drug Administration regulates when it comes to "use by" dates is infant formula. Valerie Cornwell told Terry Baker she did find at least one can on a shelf past the month, day and year she was in the store.

"When we find infant formula that's out of date, we will remove it from the shelf, and have the manager to destroy it; at least put it in the back, so that no one will purchase it," Baker said of Health Department procedures.

That action is required, because infant formula can lose the nutrients babies need. However, it likely would not make an infant sick. Baker said Health Department employees are not required though to watch a grocery store worker destroy the baby formula.

"No. Normally they will come to the aisle where the baby formula, a lot of times they will be with us during the inspection, and they will remove it and have someone take it to the back," added Baker. "Of course, they know we're gonna be back within a few months to do another inspection, so it wouldn't be any use for them to put it back on the shelf knowing that we're gonna come back."

It wouldn't make sense, but that's apparently what happened at the Price Chopper in Trumann. During our visit on January 22, 2004, we found a can of formula that had a "use by" date of September 7th, 2003. Four days later, Bill Best from the Department of Health visited the same store. It was a surprise inspection -- normal procedure.

The assessment report showed the only critical item that needed to be fixed was the storage of liquid cleaners above a three-compartment sink. Best wrote that it was corrected during his inspection.

Best did not find any infant formula containers with dates that had come and gone at the time of the January 26th drop-in. Terry Baker said he hasn't had many complaints about expired infant formula at the store either.

In fact, in reports dating back to 1998, we found only one assessment that mentions out of date formula. However, on February 13 and February 18 we did find two expired cans. Both containers were supposed to have been used by September 7, 2003.

"You must have combed it a lot better than we did," admitted Baker. "They have a lot of it, and I know we looked at everything I thought in front."

Price Chopper in Trumann isn't the only store with expired baby formula. In fact, 6 of the 7 grocery stores we visited in Jonesboro had expired cans.

On February 13 at Hays on Nettleton Avenue, we found a can of Nestle Carnation Follow-up Soy Powder that should have been used by July 11, 2003. Down the road at Kroger, Similac Lactose Free Infant Formula with Iron that has a "use by" date of November 1, 2003 still had not been discarded. On February 25, a container of American Fare Little Ones Soy Infant Formula with Iron should have been eaten by October 28, 2003, instead it remained on a store shelf at K-Mart on Caraway.

Out of date cans were still on display at Country Mart on Southwest Drive, Wallace and Owens on Highland Drive and Bill's Fresh Market on Highway 49. The most out-dated was at Wallace and Owens: July 1, 2003. Ironically, at Bill's Fresh Market, there are two signs hanging on shelves that hold infant formula. The last line on both of them reads "...rotate all stock to ensure freshness. - Management."

Terry Baker went on to explain that most of the time when Health Inspectors return to a store, the out-dated infant formula has been removed. He explained that Arkansas will probably adopt the federal Food and Drug Administration food code sometime this year to help deal with questions surrounding shelf dates, as well as other concerns. However, he does not believe there will ever be a federal law that will require all products to be removed from store shelves once they've past the date printed on the label.

"I could never think of an illness that has been caused by the food being too old," Baker recalled. "Now it could be caused by, and it usually is, by the food not being properly handled, and not held at the proper temperature."

So the next time you're pulling products from the shelf in front of you, you may want to take time to inspect for a date, especially if you want a healthy baby.

5 of the 6 of the Jonesboro stores responded to K8 News regarding the findings. They all gave similar comments. They said they are aware that the government regulates infant formula "use by" dates, and they do have stock-rotation procedures in place. They said that the expired cans could be on shelves for a variety of reasons: including problems with distributors, and items being returned by customers that are expired. They admit that sometimes things get overlooked.

As for Price Chopper, the manager, Allen Hamilton, wouldn't comment on the record. However, he did walk us through his store. He pointed out workers that were busy pulling products from store shelves aisle by aisle, cleaning surfaces and re-stocking them with items he said were not expired.