A Dollar General store in Dayton sold a box of berry-flavored infants’ Ibuprofen two weeks ago that it should have removed from its shelves and discarded last year.
The medication expired more than six months earlier, and in Ohio it is illegal to sell expired or outdated medications, baby food and infant formula.
But the law has not stopped some stores across the region and the state from selling outdated goods, a Dayton Daily News investigation found. Since 2005, state health officials have discovered hundreds of pounds of expired over-the-counter medication for sale at stores statewide. Many other stores failed to remove outdated baby food and formula from their shelves.
And consumers cannot rely on the health inspectors to catch all expired products.
Inspections of stores that sell baby food and formula often occur only once or twice a year. Inspections for expired medication are complaint-based, and occur infrequently. The state said it does not have the resources to regularly check stores for expired medications.
The products are not necessarily dangerous to consume, but their quality, effectiveness and nutritional value is uncertain, experts said.
“It’s extremely concerning to me as a pediatric dietitian” that infants may be consuming outdated formula, said Leah Sabato, clinical dietitian with the Children’s Medical Center of Dayton. “You’re compromising the nutritional status of a child during the period when nutrition is most important.”
Before purchasing products, parents should check the “use by” dates on infant formula and baby food to ensure their children are receiving the nutrients they need. Consumers should also look out for expired medications, because they may not get what they paid for.
“After that expiration date, the drug is still potent, although at a reduced level,” said Dr. Yanfang Chen, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. “Generally it is safe after the expiration date. However, there is no guarantee that an expired medicine will be safe or effective.”
Since January 2012, sanitarians have discovered expired or outdated baby food and infant formula available for sale at almost 20 stores in Montgomery County, according to inspection reports from Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County. The newspaper reviewed more than one thousand reports as part of its investigation.
Inspectors found three dozen dated cans of infant formula at Food 4 Less in October. They also found 18 dated containers of baby food at a local Kroger store in August. Inspectors found outdated goods at Amir Market, Davis Foodtown, Sunoco, United Dairy Farmers, Sam’s Market, Westside Supermarket, Walgreens, Walmart and other local stores, reports show.
Oftentimes, the products are only a few weeks passed their “use by” dates. But sometimes, the products should have been removed many months earlier.
In mid-March, the newspaper checked a small sample of products at more than a dozen local grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores in the Dayton region.
The newspaper found infant formula at a Walgreens and a Kroger that were between two to six weeks outdated, and a box of infants’ Ibuprofen at Dollar General that expired in August 2012.
Health inspectors embargo outdated baby food and infant formula, said Alan Pierce, supervisor of the bureau of general services with Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County.
There is no penalty for violating the law, and health departments do not have the authority to fine violators. Businesses that systematically and deliberately sell outdated goods could face license revocation. But officials said that almost never happens.
Store owners always voluntarily remove and discard outdated items, Pierce said. The vast majority of businesses accidentally or inadvertently leave on the products on the shelves, he added.
Problems with old products?
Baby food and infant formula are not dangerous to use when they are outdated, but the products may not provide the advertised nutritional benefits, Pierce said.
“They are not a public health concern as far as illness or sickness — if you are to consume them after the expiration date — but there can be a degradation in the nutritional value and vitamin effectiveness,” he said.
Breast milk is the optimal source of nutrition for infants, but some parents cannot or choose not to breast feed, and infant formula is the only acceptable alternative, said Sabato, with Dayton Children’s. For children who are not breastfed, infant formula accounts for 100 percent of their diet, and nutrition is extremely important for children under the age of 1, she said.
Most infants in Ohio consume formula at some time in their first year of development.
Sabato said it is worrisome that some infants may be consuming formula that does not meet important nutritional standards.
Similac is a popular brand of infant formula, and it is one of the products inspectors sometimes find out of date on the shelves of local stores. Abbott, the maker of Similac, does not recommend using the products after the “use by” dates because the nutritional profile could be impacted, said Lindsy Delco, a spokeswoman for Abbott Nutrition.
“If a product is sold or used after the expiration date, the product might not have the level of nutrients that are on the label,” Delco said
Baby food and infant formula are not the only products that sometimes remain too long on store shelves.
Since 2005, the Ohio Department of Agriculture has received 29 complaints about businesses selling expired over-the-counter medications, said Ashley McDonald, a department spokeswoman. Most of the complaints proved valid. The department’s food safety division has oversight of the medications.
In 2005, a discount retailer in Stark County used rubbing alcohol to remove the expiration dates from expired or illegal over-the-counter medicines, according to a state investigative report. Officials discovered more than 400 pounds of expired or illegal medications.
n 2010, inspectors found 166 expired medications in bargain bins at a discount store in Lancaster. Later that year, inspectors found 252 expired medications at a store in Canton, which also sold food that was 10 years expired.
In 2011, inspectors discovered a merchant in Allen County had 50 pounds of expired medications in their bins. Last year, inspectors found about 50 pounds of expired drugs for sale at a discount store in Defiance County.
But the division of food safety rarely receives complaints about expired medications, and it does not conduct routine inspections of stores in search of expired products. The department has 15 inspectors to cover the entire state, and they handle more than 2,000 inspections annually of a few thousand food processors, food warehouses and home bakeries, McDonald said.
“Because of resources and staffing, it’s important we focus on where the highest risk is, and that would be the food processors,” she said.
Expiration dates are a critical part of determining whether a product is safe to use and will work as intended, said Sandy Walsh, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Federal Drug Administration.
“There is no assurance that drug products held past their expiration dates are safe or effective due to possible changes in chemical composition or a decrease in potency,” she said in an e-mail. “Changes in chemical composition can make the medicine weaker and it may not treat the health condition.”
A small mistake?
Chen, with the Boonshoft School of Medicine, said consumers cannot be certain that expired medicine will be safe or effective. The expiration date promises quality. But he said the FDA Shelf Life Extension Program has tested hundreds of drugs for the U.S. military since 1985 and found that on average they were still good five and half years after expiration.
About 90 percent of more than 100 over-the-counter medications were proven safe and effective far past their expiration dates, he said. Some drugs were at full potency a decade later.
But the tests were done in optimal storage conditions, and medicines will degrade much quicker in uncontrolled settings, he said.
Local stores said they have policies in place to remove outdated goods from their shelves, and any dated products discovered were the result of an oversight.
Kroger has “procedures and guidelines in place to ensure our shelves are checked regularly for short or outdated product,” said Kroger spokeswoman Rachael Betzler for the Cincinnati-based retail giant. “The health and safety of our customers and their families is of paramount importance to us.”
In the unlikely event that a customer finds or buys an outdated product at a Dollar General store, they should notify a store employee so the product can be discarded and the customer can receive a full refund or replacement product, said Crystal Ghassemi, a company spokeswoman.
Ghassemi said she notified the operations team of the local store to remind employees of company policy about outdated goods to “help prevent this from occurring again.”
Types of dates consumers should know
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
- A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.