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Mystery date: just how dangerous is ‘expired’ food?

What you don’t know can’t kill you, but Southwest grocers decode the confusing world of "sell-by" dates, "packed on" dates, "expiration" dates

Strolling though a Southwest grocery store on Sept. 8, I grabbed for a carton of orange juice but something caught my eye. The expiration dates on the cartons read AUG 15 and AUG 16.

There was an employee nearby stocking yogurt, so I flagged him over to point out the expired merchandise. He looked embarrassed, and immediately started taking it off the shelf. "This happens sometimes," he said with a grimace.

As it often does, curiosity got the better of me, so the next week I embarked on a search of Southwest grocery stores to see if anyone else was selling expired food and what, if any, regulations there are for dating food.

The hunt for expired goods For my investigation, I decided to focus on select items, such as milk, eggs, refrigerated juice, meat and cheese that, if spoiled, would likely upset customers the most.

Trying to be inconspicuous, I went through seven Southwest stores:

  • Lunds Uptown, 1450 W. Lake St.;
  • Uptown Rainbow Foods, 1104 Lagoon Ave.;
  • Whole Foods Market, 3060 Excelsior Blvd.;
  • Wedge Community Co-op, 2105 Lyndale

     

    Ave. S.;

  • Linden Hills Co-op, 2813 W. 43rd St.;
  • Kowalski’s Lyndale Market, 5327 Lyndale Ave. S.; and
  • Cub Foods, 5937 Nicollet Ave. S.

     

    At each store, I eyed labels and printed carton dates and dug though piles of cheese to find a printed date.

    The good news is that during my search, I found not one store — including the original offending store — with any visibly dated expired food on the shelves.

    Good for consumers, bad for a fired-up investigative reporter.

    However, my search prompted new questions: some food had expiration dates, but others didn’t. Why? Some products had dates, but instead of expiration dates, they were "sell by" dates, or "packed on" dates. What’s the difference and how should consumers judge them?

    Finally, other products only had funny codes. Was this important expiration information?

    Why is there such a range of variation in the dating of food from store to store?

    Because, according to the Minnesota Department of Agricultures meat and food inspections, it’s barely regulated.

    My investigation changed, but I pressed on.

    Regulation Kevin Elfering, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s director of dairy food and meat inspections, said there’s no regulation because expired food is not a public health risk. He said most food, once expired, has little ability to produce pathogens that make people sick (good ammo for the spouse that insists on making sandwiches with deli meat that expired yesterday).

    "There’s nothing in the low threat [to public health category] that requires a retailer to remove a product as long as they can prove it’s wholesome, done through product evaluation," Elfering said.

    He said expired products can be sold because they aren’t always bad once they reach their expiration date.

    There are a few exceptions to the rule, however. Infant formula and eggs must be removed by their expiration date because of vitamin degradation that could be harmful, even deadly.

    Elfering said every manufacturer he’s encountered wants to sell a quality product and won’t hurt sales by putting a less-than-quality product on the shelf. In essence, an expiration or freshness date is a voluntary way to ensure quality and protect business so the government doesn’t have to step in, he said.

    All Southwest stores consulted for the story said although by law they can sell food past its expiration date, they choose not to.

    Elfering said another reason why food dates aren’t regulated is that laws might give some manufacturers an unfair advantage.

    For example, that small bakery making homemade bread has a shorter freshness window compared to a business baking bread with preservatives intended to sit on the shelf for weeks, he said.

    What’s in a date? Even if a date is provided, it’s not always easy to tell what it means. Some dates are printed alone, without any explanation — no "packed on," "sell by," "use by" or "expiration" attached.

    In the industry, these are so-called "open dates." According to Minnesota statute 1550.1040, an open date can qualify as a number of things, including the manufacture date, packaging date, pull date (off shelves), expiration date, freshness date or shelf display date.

    Manufacturers using an open date determine what it means — but it’s not always printed in plain sight or with a clear explanation, making it hard for the consumer to translate.

    At the Wedge, Member Services Director Elizabeth Archard said that on many foods the co-op makes feature a "pack date" — the date a product was put on the shelf. Other products may include manufacturer information, such as an alphanumeric code — which means something to the manufacturer but nothing to the consumer.

    Jason Lanick, a manager at Kowalski’s Lyndale Market, said that if products come with codes, not dates, manufacturer sales reps pull the product themselves once the food expires.

    Mike Johnson, Dairy and Frozen Foods Manager at Kowalski’s Lyndale Market said the products with funny codes are usually those with really long shelf lives.

    Johnson said there are so many codes for an individual food item that it’s just easier for a manufacturer’s rep to do the decoding.

    Jeanne Lakso, marketing and service member at Linden Hills Co-op, said it’s frustrating that there’s no standard or continuity for dating. "As a shopper, that’s so annoying," she said.

    Lakso said a confused customer’s best bet is to ask a staff person at the store. She said it’s easier for a co-op to trace its food because it comes direct from farmers.

    Past its prime? While Southwest grocery stores differ in how they label food they make, such as deli items, they were more consistent about getting rid of food once it expired. They all found some way to creatively get some use out of the food, cutting down on waste.

    Almost all Southwest grocery stores send breads and pastries to local shelters. The Wedge’s Archard said once food nears its "sell by" date, it’s usually put on special. She said because food is usually good for at least a week after the "sell by" date, the Wedge gives it to employees to take home, rather than waste it.

    Archard said sometimes when food is near expiration, but still good — perhaps produce that’s fine, but looks roughed up — it goes to the deli to become a dish of something.

    Elfering said there are many discount grocery stores that specialize in food close to its expiration date, who sell it for a discounted price.

    Whole Foods’ Manager Dan Blackburn said that expired food not fit for human consumption ends up in a few "pig buckets" in the bowels of the store. Such food is literally given to a pig farmer as feed. He said "pig buckets" are part of the store’s goal to recycle what they can’t use.