Consumer Law

Check That Date: Expired Goods on Stores' Shelves

Most of us go to the store with a list or at least an idea about the exact items we need and we quickly go about gathering them. Sometimes as we shop, we pick an item from a shelf and put in the basket without much thought at all. The point is, sometimes we don't pay attention expiration dates on the items we're buying. As recent events at some CVS stores show, it's probably wise to start checking those dates.

CVS Incidents

In December 2009, the Connecticut attorney general filed a lawsuit against CVS, a national chain of pharmacies. The suit claims that numerous stores within the state were selling expired over-the-counter drugs, infant formula, energy drinks, milk, eggs and yogurt. It's not the only time CVS has been sued, either.

Not long ago, CVS paid $875,000 to settle a suit filed by the New York attorney general claiming that stores were selling expired items, too. The attorneys general for California and Nevada filed similar suits, but neither were as successful as the New York suit.

CVS certainly isn't alone when it comes to selling expired items, nor does it appear to be new or recent phenomenon. In 2008, another pharmacy and retail giant, Rite Aid, paid $650,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the New Jersey attorney general. That suit claimed that several of its stores sold expired infant formula, baby food and over-the-counter medications. Rite Aid and the state apparently entered into agreements back in 2001 and 2005 in which it agreed to stop selling expired goods.

Date Laws

You may be surprised to find out under federal law, dating food and other items isn't required, except for baby formula and some baby foods. There's no federal law, however, that requiring stores to remove expired formula and baby food from their shelves. As a practical matter, it's up to the states to write and enforce their own laws when it comes to dating practically all foods, drinks and over-the-counter medications.

And those laws vary from state to state. For example, we've seen that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have some laws about not only dating some foods, but also requiring stores to pull expired items from their shelves, like dairy products and over-the-counter drugs. In some states, like California selling expired drugs and medications isn't illegal, however.

What Can You Do?

The first thing to do is to start looking at the expiration dates on the foods, drinks and medications you buy. Although they're not usually required to do, most manufacturers and distributors put some type of date on their products. If the item you're holding has an expiration or "best if used by" date that's already past, pick another item. If that date's coming up, figure out if you can use the entire product before the date comes.

If you see expired items on a store shelf, there are several things you can do, such as:

Try to do as many of these things as possible. At the same time, keep tabs on what's happening at the store. If you see the same expired products still on the shelf, tell the manager about it again. If the products were pulled but more expired items are on the shelves later, stop shopping at the store, and maybe even avoid the whole chain or franchise, if possible.

A lot of the responsibility for making sure that you and your family are using safe products falls on you.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If I get sick from eating some food after the expiration date or from taking expired medicine, can the store be held responsible if I had just bought the item but didn't notice the date? What about the company that made the food or drugs?
  • Does a store have to give a refund for expired items if I return them as soon as I noticed they're expired? What if I opened or used some of it already?
  • How long will it take for the attorney general to investigate my complaint and file a lawsuit? If she wins the suit or if it's settled, what's the money used for?

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