Expired Food—Is It on Your Grocer’s Shelves?

Expiration Date You won’t turn green from eating it, but why buy food that’s past its prime?


Shelf life was actually front page news very recently—on the first page of the Chicago Tribune’s business section.  Here’s the story:  Shopping at Dominick’s (a supermarket chain), Jill Cataldo (a well-known Chicago-area coupon blogger) said she found 761 expired items during  various shopping trips, and some of the items were really antiques, with “use by” dates going back to 2008.  Cataldo has been hearing about this problem for more than a year now, she says—from her blog readers and from students in her coupon classes. On Facebook, Dominick’s has been receiving a lot of angry comments from customers who have taken home expired food. 


Now, wait a minute. Before you cross Dominick’s off your grocery list, consider these points:


• In general, “use-by” and sell-by” dates are about quality (taste, texture, appearance, scent, etc.) rather than safety.  They mean that after that date the food may no longer be at its best.  (That’s not so scary, is it?)  Many shelf-stable products are not only safe but of high quality long after the “use-by” date. 


• Most expired food that’s on store shelves is probably not there to trick consumers into buying old products. Considering the many thousands of products on one supermarket’s shelves, it’s not surprising that some expired items are not removed immediately.


• The U.S. government doesn’t require dates on most food items, with the exception of infant formula and some baby food.  The only federal requirement is that, if there is a date, it must contain a day, month and, for shelf-stable products, a year.


• State laws regarding product dating vary from state to state.  According to the Chicago Tribune, dating is required in more than 20 states, but there are areas of the country where almost no food is dated. 


In Illinois, where Cataldo did her research, there is no law against having out-of -date food on the shelves.  Therefore, no state agency is checking to see that these items are promptly removed.


The Chicago Tribune did its own checking in a downtown store and in one hour came up with two expired products, both shelf-stable items.  At a suburban Chicago-area store, employees were seen filling at least two shopping carts with expired food, mostly bottled sauces and salad dressings.


Cataldo is not the only shopper to find significant numbers of out-of-date products on store shelves; nor is Dominick’s the only store that has been found selling out-dated products.   A 2008 Consumer Reports investigation turned up 72 expired products in 31 supermarkets located in 7 different states.  That same year, an investigation in Connecticut (one of the states that don’t allow the sale of expired food) found expired products in almost half of the stores checked.  In 2009, CVS was sued for selling expired food, beverages, and medications. 


So where does all this leave consumers?  Here’s our advice. 


• When grocery shopping, take off those sunglasses, put on your reading glasses, and check the dates. 


• Be especially careful about checking dates on perishables (raw meat and poultry, dairy products, etc.).


• If you plan to keep a product for awhile before consuming it,  reach further back (or down), and you’ll probably find a younger version of the same food.


• If, while you’re shopping, you notice an expired food on the shelf, bring it to customer service.  It’s good for stores to know that their customers are paying attention to the dates and that the store is not checking inventory carefully enough. 


• After you get a product home, if you notice that it has expired, take the item (and your receipt) back to the store, and request a refund.  The store will probably give it to you as a good will gesture even if it’s not illegal to sell expired food in your state.


• If you find that many products purchased at that store have expired dates, consider shopping elsewhere or, at the very least, discuss the matter with the manager.


• If you eat something and later realize it was a few days or even a week past the “use-by” date, don’t worry.  If it’s a perishable item that was properly refrigerated, it’s not likely to hurt you. And if it’s shelf-stable, it may taste a bit stale, but that’s probably the worst of it. Expiration dates are conservative. 


• When trying to decide whether to eat or discard expired food that you purchased awhile ago, keep in mind that it can be contaminated even if it looks and smells okay.  Food safety experts often advise, “When in doubt, throw it out.”


Shelf Life Advice has other articles that discuss shelf life and expired food. Here are two links you may find interesting:





For information on the shelf life of a specific food, use the “search” box on the home page.




Chicago Tribune Business: “Claims of outdated food hit grocer,” February 18, 3011. p. 21.


Chicago Tribune “Outdated items at Dominick’s upset customers”




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