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Expired Dole fruit cups

There are “sell by,” “best by” and “use by” dates on our grocery products – but, let’s be honest, most of us really only look at the date and not the description. Even if it’s just a “best by” date, and it’s probably perfectly safe to eat after the date passes, most of us tend to err on the side of caution and toss it.

But does your grocery store do the same?

In what’s either a troubling story about a sloppy supermarket, or a sign of a slow news day in Denver, a local TV station there decided to investigate a shopper’s claim that she and her baby got sick from eating past-its-prime food sold at a King Soopers store. And what the store had to say about it, comes across as just a bit disturbing.

Alexis Beeman of Aurora, Colorado told KUSA-TV this week that she didn’t notice the date when she grabbed a package of Dole fruit cups off the shelf and took it home. But after she and her one-year-old daughter ate some of the diced pears and felt sick, she said she looked at the “best by” date – July 1, 2012. She purchased it in August 2013, more than a year later.

Yuck.

Or is it? “Best by” is the least stringent of all expiration dates. Unlike “use by”, which is a somewhat stronger warning, and “sell by”, which is used on perishable products that really will start to go bad after the listed date, “best by” is mostly just a suggestion. It means a product may not be at its best, when it comes to taste or texture, after the stamped date. But it probably won’t kill you. Many have even turned expired food into a whole new business model, opening “scratch and dent” stores featuring “gently expired” products (read: “Seeking Out Groceries That Are Dented, Expired, Discontinued – And Cheap”).

Still, everything expires eventually. Eating something a few days or weeks or even months after a “best by” date is one thing. But more than a year? Plus, it’s not as though Beeman found it in the back of her pantry – she found it stocked on the shelves at her regular grocery store, with the expectation that it wouldn’t be a relic. Sure, some might argue she should have checked, but harried mothers toting a toddler in the grocery store don’t always have time to examine expiration dates.

So should it have been the store’s responsibility to ensure it’s not selling old food? Beeman said it took Kroger-owned King Soopers more than a week to respond to her emailed complaint, during which time a KUSA reporter visited the store and found even more out-of-date fruit cups still on the shelves.

Eventually, King Soopers apologized, sort of – mostly for its delayed response to Beeman’s complaint. A spokesperson then told the TV station, “once you shared your findings with us, we immediately addressed the issues and reinforced proper procedures to ensure this does not happen again.”

Except it may not have. “According to King Soopers,” KUSA reported, “there are 70,000 items for sale at a typical store. Products are checked daily, but employees can only check items that pose a safety risk.”

In other words, perishable products with “sell by” dates are checked daily and regularly discarded. But when it comes to products with “best by” dates, well, store staffers are very busy. So you’re on your own with those.

The website EatByDate.com maintains a database of realistic dates after which you can safely eat expired products. It doesn’t have an entry for fruit cups, but under “canned fruit”, it says products are generally safe to eat a year or two after the printed date. So, other than the minor stomach upset that Beeman said she and her daughter experienced, they seem to be in the clear.

But still.

Dole suggests you’re better off not eating year-old fruit cups. “DOLE products sold in the U.S.A. feature a ‘best if used by’ date that guarantees the best quality and flavor up to that date,” the company says. “We do not recommend using a product after the ‘best if used by’ date.”

There’s actually no law forcing manufacturers to date their food at all, with the exception of baby formula, and few laws forcing stores to take outdated products off their shelves. Two counties in New York do regulate the sale of outdated products. Rockland County law states that such products cannot be sold on store shelves “unless such goods are segregated, clearly and conspicuously marked, and offered at a reduction from the customary selling price at which identical unexpired goods are offered for sale.” And Westchester County has fined stores thousands of dollars for violating its own similar law.

But there’s no such law in Denver. And, apparently, no big effort on King Soopers’ part to do much of anything about it.

So check those dates. Because chances are, your grocery store might not bother.

Composite image sources: Dole, Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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