Consumer Law

Check That Date: Expired Goods on Store Shelves

If you're harmed by an out-of-date product, you might have recourse in state or federal law.

Sell-by date. Best if used by date. Expired by date. Are you mystified by the meaning of the little phrases stamped on the underside of your cans or on your gallon of milk? If a product that hasn’t expired makes you sick, do you have any legal options? Some knowledge of what these terms mean, and what they don’t mean, can make you a better consumer.

Is Selling Expired Goods Illegal?

You might find it surprising that federal law doesn’t require a manufacturer to put an expiration date on a product. Additionally, baby formula and baby food are the only products that can’t be sold after it expires.

Even so, state governments are free to regulate the selling of expired goods, and many do. For example, states have filed and settled lawsuits with major retailers for selling expired food and medications.

What’s the Purpose of Expiration Dates?

When checking items for sale, you may come across several different terms, such as “best before,” “best if used by,” “sell by,” “freeze by” or “expired by.” The manufacturer provides the dates to give you an idea of how fresh the product is, not whether it is dangerous or not. In most cases, a product is still good to use even after the date stamped on the container. However, you might not want to take a chance and instead, avoid expired products altogether.

What If a Product Makes Me Sick?

Sometimes consumers end up harmed by a product. If the company that made the product—or the store that sold it—is responsible for the injury, you might be able to recover money to compensate you. To do so, you’ll likely file a civil lawsuit under a “product liability” theory (unless your state has a particular law covering your situation). This law holds manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of faulty products responsible for harm caused by those goods.

It’s important to understand that under this theory, it doesn’t matter whether the product is past its expiration date or not. To prevail, you’ll need to prove that the manufacturer or seller was responsible for your injuries.

But that alone won’t be enough. An attorney will likely want to be able to show that you suffered a significant harm before agreeing to take your case. For instance, a stomachache caused by bad milk that lasts for a few hours and leaves no lasting effects might not be worth much regarding pain, lost time, or money. Therefore, a good line of defense in the marketplace is to protect yourself by avoiding expired products in the first place.

(If you're considering pursuing an action on your own, you can learn about the process in Success In Small Claims Court.)

Suggestions for Dealing With Expired Products

If you purchase an expired product or notice that your local store often sells old goods, here are some things you can do.

  • If you accidentally buy a product that is past its expiration date, return it to the store for an exchange or refund.
  • Write a letter to your store manager and send a copy to the store’s corporate headquarters or home office.
  • You can file a complaint with your state attorney general, the FDA, and the Better Business Bureau.
(You can learn more about the rights of consumers by reading the article Consumer Protection Laws.)

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What steps are appropriate to take if I believe an expired product has harmed me?
  • To whom do I report an expired product?
  • Does my state have a law that will provide protection against expired products?

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