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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Expired Food: What consumers should know

This is the second installment of the 3-part series on Food Expiration:

Food can be poisonous

Would you eat expired food? or rather in a passive tone, Have you eaten expired food? That's sound silly. But how many times we had been completely unaware of consuming food in the past that were either expired or past its Use by period. Let's take a look:

Manny, not his real name, lives in Michigan with his wife and 8-month old daughter. About 2 years ago. His wife bought a Hershey's chocolate box from a grocey store. When he ate some of them, he got diarrhea. At first, he didn't figure out that it was from the chocolate or not. Days later, he took his daughter to the hospital because she got severe diarrhea for 3 days. Doctors state that possible reason could be food poisoning.

After the medical findings, Manny called Hershey's and inquired about the cholocate and he was informed that it was 3 years past its expiration date based on the printed code on the box. Immediately, he contacted CVS that sold the cholocate to him. CVS told him
that they don't sell expired food anymore. The store even asked for the medical findings from the hospital, but after that last confrontation, Manny never heard from CVS anymore. He felt that the store is not taking the case seriously. Manny is wondering if he has a case. (This story was taken from fora)

Or take a look for this Orlando woman who recorded her proof of maggots in Hershey's bars.

Health problems associated with consuming expired food

Bags of tomatoes tested for salmonella bacteria at a
US government lab in California during a salmonella
outbreak in 2008
There are literally thousands cases of food poisoning associated with eating food past their use-by or expired-on dates and diarrhea is just one of the dozen of diseases associated with eating spoiled food. Food-related diseases and food poisoning are caused by deadly bacteria, salmonella, e Coli, campylobacter, etc. that have grown and borne due to improper food handling and lack of proper information on expired food disposal.

According to WRAP, 33% percent of all food produced is wasted along the chill chain or at the consumer. At the same time, a large number of people get sick every year due to spoiled food. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and CDC, every year in the USA there are 76 million foodborne illnesses, leading to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Here are some common health problems associated with consuming food past their use by or expiration dates:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal Cramping
  • Vomiting
  • Increase risk of Listeria infection

The truths and myths about food labeling dates

Expert say that product date labels refer only to the quality of food, which serve as warning of the gradual changes in taste, color and nutrient content that can occur after the printed date. The truth is, consumers are largely left to figure out when food has become unsafe. 

For instance, food safety experts say that eggs can be safely kept in the carton for two to five weeks from the time you bring them home. But taking the eggs out of the carton exposes their porous shells to possible bacteria. Therefore, the expiration date label becomes meaningless once the container is opened because now the food has become perishable. Another example is when you exposed a sealed bottle of fresh milk outside the refrigerator for few days. There is a big difference in taste and smell  when you open it even before its Use-by date label due to poor temperature, exposure, and wrong storage location. So the obvious question would be, "What are those food labellings tell us about the food we eat?"

Common food labels and how do we read them

Best if Used By, Better if Used Before, Best By, Best Before 
These dates are only advisory and refer to the quality of the product. It means that the flavor or the quality of the product is adversely affected after this date. Foods that have these labels are usually safe to eat after the date has passed, but may begin to lose its optimum flavor, texture, appearance or nutrition.

These label dates are generally found on shelf-stable products such as mustard, mayonnaise, or peanut butter. Also on boxed foods such as cereals, pasta, cocoa, and other dry foods. On canned good such as canned milk, canned fruits, and canned juice, canned vegetables, cooking oil in cans, corned beef, meat loaf, sausages, sardines, and bread in bags. 

How about eggs with Best Before labels? Eggs are a special case, since they may contain salmonella, which multiplies over time; they should therefore not be eaten after the best before date, which is a maximum of 28 days after the eggs are laid. Eggs must be sold to the consumer within 21 days of laying; this means that they must be sold 7 days before the 'best before' date expires.

This label indicates that the product is no longer safe to consume after the specified date. "Use by" is used on highly perishable foods which, if they are not stored correctly and used by the date indicated, could pose an imminent risk to health. Good examples are ground meat, dairy products, fish and poultry. "Use by" means THIS is the expiration date. This is the only expiration guideline that means exactly what it says. Do not buy or consume any food that goes beyond this date label!

Sell By, Display Until 
The date is a guide for stores to know how long they can display a particular product. You should buy the product before the sell-by date expires. But you can still store it at home for some time beyond that date, as long as you follow safe storage procedures.  Food that has passed its Sell By or Display Until date, but is still within its Use By or Best Before labels will still be edible, assuming it has been stored correctly. Some products with these labels can be found on Ketchup, salad dressing, mayonnaise, etc.

How about fresh products such as milk, poultry, fish or meat with Sell-By labels?  Fresh meat, poultry and fish should be all cooked within 1 to 2 days of purchase, and should NEVER be purchased beyond the "sell by" date.

Expires On
The only place you’re likely to encounter this type of date is on infant formula and some baby foods, which are the only food products the federal government regulates with regard to dating. You should always use the product before this date has passed. Any infant formula or baby food that past the Expires-On date label poses health risk to infants.

Exp. Date
This label is normally found on prescriptive and OTC drugs. You can no longer be guaranteed with the effectiveness of the medicine that goes past this date. How about Exp. date labels on canned juices? It means the same as Better if Used Before labels. See above.

Packing codes
Packing codes help manufacturers and grocers rotate their stock and quickly locate products in the event of a recall. They are not meant to be interpreted as an indicator of either food safety or quality. 

Practical Health Tips

Prevention is better than cure. Getting the right information or advice from the start is probably, if not the best tip that all consumers and retailers should always remember before anything else. The following are time-tested practical tips that everybody should know:
  1. Make a habit of checking the product's expiration date or similar label dates before buying. This will almost guarantee you to a healthy and safety eating habits. Even grocery  stores that sell healthy food, are not exempt from distributing obsolescent food.   
  2. Update your USDA Fact Sheet if you haven't done so. The USDA FSIS recommends everybody to download or print Food Labeling Sheet. It will serve as a very invaluable information designed for the consumer like us.
  3. Check and rid off your refrigerator or food storage regularly for food way past their Use-By labels.  Surprisingly, the most likely to spot expired food is not from the grocery store we love to buy our stuff, but from your refrigerator. Worst is, no federal law or state law regulates them because they are all self-regulated! You freezer is a potential breeding ground for some of the deadliest bacteria such as salmonella, e coli, campylobacter, etc  In the freezer, the growth of bacteria is arrested . It can stay in there for a longer period of time. Freezing doesn't kill any bacteria it just stops it growing. So any bacteria that has grown while it was out of the freezer is just stops as it is when frozen and still there and continues growing when you next take it out. 
  4. Our senses do not always make sense.  Is smelling the food a good way to detect spoilage? Only if there's on odor to the product. Susan Reef, president of US Food Safety, a food safety information clearinghouse, said that "it’s not always the best way to test products. Something like salad dressing; it might smell good but has turned a little bit.” Never use your nose, eyes, or taste buds to judge the safety of food. You cannot tell if a food may cause foodborne illness by its look, smell, or taste. Don't take chances by eating older food and drinking expired milk. It's not worth the health risk. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has some good advice to everybody: "When in doubt, throw it out!" Skepticism is a healthy habit.
  5. Watch out for red flags: Be careful when you are buying food with labels such as "discounted food products" "clearance sale" "marked down prices" "buy one, get one free" "manager's special" or similar promo from grocery stores. It is good that we look for ways and means to extend the power of our dollars and I think that's a healthy budgeting habit. However, there is a danger:  These items are for immediate consumption and not for prolonged refrigeration! Check for "relabelled" or "repackaged" food such as meat, poultry, or any other previously frozen items. Repackaging or redating of food labels are not only unhealthy business practice but gross negligence to public health and safety.

Thinking of filing a case?

Let's go back to Manny's case I mentioned previously.  If you were in Manny's situation, would you pursue legal action against the store? Maybe yes, maybe not. There is no straight or simplistic answer to this. Its a case to case basis. Remember, going back to the grocery store where you thought it was the cause of your sufferings and threaten the store people with legal action may not be a good idea. Even if you have medical records to back your claims, IT DOES NOT WORK and it WON'T WORK that way.

Two things you can do: Either call your local city health office and report the matter with them, or seek legal advice and see if you have a case. When you opt to report the matter with your city health office, the strength and gravity of your complain determines whether the health officer shall take action or not. Most of the time, the city health office may not respond to your particular case immediately. They may place your complain or your story on file first, until there is a growing collective complaints of the same or similar incidence with that same store or retailer. 

Once the city health office has gathered enough complaints, the least it can do is to investigate the cases with or without the cooperation of the media. When the city health office has found sufficient grounds on the strength of its investigation, the office shall issue a notice of warning or penalize the store for violation of a state law or health ordinance, if such law or ordinance exists . Should the retailer or store continue to sell expired products despite notice of warning and ignore the city health office directive, that's the only time when the city health office shall consider in filing a case against the store or retailer. Then a legal action shall commence.  

But, do you have a case?

That is the big question. Should you decide to pursue a case for yourself instead, seek legal advice first. The law firm shall determine and decide whether you have a case or not and you go from there. Make sure to look for a law firm that has a good record or accomplishments in that particular field. Remember, it is the your right as a consumer to protect personal health and safety.

I rest my case.

You may also be interested in:

BeanTag - Electronic Food Expiration Reminder  Healthy Foods : An Irreverent Guide to Understanding Nutrition and Feeding Your Family Well  The Complete Book of Raw Food, Second Edition: Healthy, Delicious Vegetarian Cuisine Made with Living Foods  12 Best Foods Cookbook: Over 200 Recipes Featuring The 12 Healthiest Foods


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