Friday, 9 August 2013

Life-saving labels?

Last week it was soon-to-be expired baby formula milk that was the worry. This week it’s everything else.

First things first. The baby formula.
A reader bought a box of baby formula from a well-known pharmacy on a Buy One Get One Free offer. A bargain, we all like those. It was only when she got it home that she noticed that both boxes expired just a couple of weeks later. The store hadn’t done anything illegal, the milk hadn’t expired yet but there was simply no way a baby could consume it all before it expired. Three quarters of the milk would be either wasted or, more worryingly, fed to the baby after its expiry date.

Luckily these were smart and caring parents. They knew this was wrong and they got themselves a complete refund. But that wasn’t the point. The store was being reckless. How many boxes had already been sold to parents who wouldn’t notice the expiry date? How many others would have been sold if they were still on the shelves?

The good news is that when we contacted Aspen Pharmacare, the manufacturers of the formula in South Africa, they were furious. This isn’t how their product is meant to be sold. They said:

"This sort of behaviour has not and will not be endorsed by Aspen” and that their "policy to all our distributors and merchandisers is to remove stock off shelf with a 3 month remaining expiry date." They also said that they will be discussing “the steps taken to resolve the matter and prevent future occurrences."

So far so good. As a producer of baby milk formula they know just how important expiry dates are and the dangers of them not being respected.

The head office of the pharmacy took a bit longer to respond but eventually reported that the products had been removed from the store and that they “are committed to ensuring that all our products are safe for consumers to use and in doing so, we check all expiration dates of products on a regular basis.”

That’s a good start but I think we deserve a little more. We need an assurance that it’s not going to happen again.

Unfortunately this isn’t an isolated case of good expiring or being mislabelled. There’s an epidemic if it out there. I’m not exaggerating, I have evidence.

Firstly we found exactly the same baby formula on sale in other stores around Gaborone, also expiring within a couple of weeks. The first pharmacy wasn’t the only culprit.

Inspired by the baby milk issue we went out shopping, actively seeking out expired goods and I don’t just mean the more benign goods like tomato ketchup, baked beans and talcum powder, I mean the stuff that might actually kill you.

In one store we found desserts with dairy content that had expired the day before. We found chilled chicken thighs that had expired two days before and which were already beginning to turn slightly green. In another store we found a packet of ham with a use by date nine days beforehand.

More mysteriously we found many pre-packaged items with no dates on them at all. One bag of frozen chicken pieces had no dates displayed. No packing date, no sell by date, no use by or expiry date. Nothing at all to let you know if it was produced yesterday, last week, last month or last year. No clues at all.

This is bad practice but it’s also illegal. The Labelling of Prepackaged Foods Regulations are very simple to understand. They say:
“No person shall … import, distribute, sell or offer for sale prepackaged food unless it is labelled in accordance with the provisions of these Regulations”.

“No person shall … import, distribute, sell or offer for sale, any food … whose expiry date has lapsed [or] whose expiry date, best before date, or sell by date has been obliterated or forged, or whose label has been altered, obliterated or removed”.
They also make it clear that labels must be conspicuous, indelible and legible. “Sorry, the label fell off” isn’t a good enough excuse.

Unfortunately these regulations are being ignored. The fact that in just a day we could collect an entire basket of expired foods (or foods not labeled at all) suggests that stores aren’t checking their own shelves on a regular basis and throwing out expired goods. It also suggests something else.

Clearly the Regulations aren’t being enforced. If it’s this simple to find expired and potentially poisonous products in stores then I think it’s safe to assume the stores aren’t being inspected sufficiently. If they WERE being inspected properly then firstly expired food would have been found and secondly the management of stores would be slightly more anxious to obey the law, don’t you think?

Is it possible that the inspectors are either absent or ineffective? They certainly don’t seem to have much influence.

Meanwhile this is yet another situation where consumers like you and me are left to protect ourselves. It’s up to us to check labels because nobody else seems to be doing it for us.

Remember that the price to be paid for not checking labels can be severe. If you’re lucky any expired food you buy will just make you unwell. If you’re not so lucky it’ll kill you.

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