The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Markets Selling Expired Food

Markets Selling Expired Food

Food Safety Update

October 25, 2009

Have you checked your expiration dates lately? A new USC study suggests that you should. Researchers, working with residents in lower-income Los Angeles areas, counted at least one expired poultry, beef or dairy product in about a third of the store visits made during a recent study. In 18% of the visits examined between April 2008 and February 2009, participating community members found at least three expired items.

The research is part of a larger study from the Neighborhood Food Watch campaign that is looking at the quality of food in south Los Angeles. Researchers involved community members in the gathering of data with the goal of building partnerships and minimizing distrust among typically marginalized groups.

Checklists were given to participants in an attempt to get them to examine the quality of food in their stores each and every time they went shopping. A total of 657 checklists were completed from the 90 participants and 432 of them focused on five well-known supermarket chains. The data for expired items ranged from 19.2% to 39.5% for poultry, 20% to 41.8% for beef and 26% to 45.4% for milk and dairy products.

USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development Professor LaVonna Lewis says that the results of this particular study reflect the lack of access to quality food products in low-income neighborhoods – a reality that has been documented nationally. However, she says that the results could be representative of a much larger, national problem. 

“Since the checklists were done wherever folks shopped (the study did not place a geographical limit on shopping location), we know it is not just a low-income area problem,” says Lewis. “From previous work, we have documented quality problems all over south Los Angeles.”

Lewis says that she would like to expand the project into other neighborhoods. She wants to delve deeper into how affected communities are handling the prevalence of expired foods as well. In fact, part of the point of this study, she says, was to evaluate if this type of community involvement would be a viable strategy for regular surveillance of markets.

In the meantime, fostering a greater understanding of expiration dates is key. Lewis and her team are working on developing materials that will spell out what various dates and labels on a package means and what consumers should do when they find expired food in their stores. 

“We have done focus groups that reveal that when folks read the labels on items, not many noted that they were actually looking for the expiration date,” she says. “We know that people will go out of their neighborhood to find fresh food, but we also want to know if efforts are being made to better inform residents of expired foods across communities,” she says. 

On a brighter note, the USC study also found that area stores were doing a good job of providing access to special diet foods. A large majority (95.4%) stocked sodium and sugar-free products. Soy and lactose free products were found in 96.5% of all stores.

The USDA’s guide to food product dating can be found here:http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Factsheets/Food_Product_Dating/index.asp.