recent death of a child, possibly as a result of consuming a bottle of
carbonated beverage which was well past its sell-by date, has again
ignited the debate on the expiry date of goods.
It is no secret that 'expired' goods (food and drink) are on sale
with many merchants, who may be doing it wittingly or unwittingly. Just
a few days ago, officers of the Consumer Affairs Authority's, Nuwara
Eliya branch raided two wholesale shops in Hatton and seized 50 bottles
of outdated fruit juice kept for sale. A spokesman for the Unit said the
outdated bottles were mixed with bottles of fruit juice, which had a
shelf life of about three more months and packed in cardboard boxes to
be dispatched to retail shops in Nallathanny and its outskirts for sale
to Sri Pada pilgrims.
There could be two scenarios here: the store owner may know that the
goods are long past the expiry date or he may not know it at all.
Either way, the only possible conclusion is that both consumers and
traders do not know enough about the importance of expiry dates.
The expiry dates on food, drink and medicine are there for a reason -
consuming such items after the sell-by date may be dangerous and even
fatal. Of course, one may just end up with a slight discomfort in the
abdominal region if all goes well, but why take a chance with something
that may have gone bad ?
It is time that traders are educated on the significance of expiry
dates. Traders should regularly check the expiry dates on the products
on their shelves and remove any product(s) that had stayed beyond their
welcome. Another point worth mentioning is that some sales
representatives turn up only a few times a year especially at remote
locations. By the time they come again, the previous stocks may have
expired, without the traders even realizing the fact.
The expiry date itself may be indicated on products in several ways.
Some products have the legend "best before" which sometimes means that
the product could still be consumed after the date indicated, albeit
with a loss of flavour or crispness. But this is not the case always, so
it is better to strictly stick to the date indicated. With products
which have a "date of expiry", especially medicines, no chance should be
taken at all.
In any case, the expiry date depends on one crucial factor: storage
conditions. In other words, the expiry date may be nullified if the
goods are not stored properly. All goods have to be stored according to
the instructions given on the packaging. The manufacturer may request
"cool and dry conditions", "keep away from sunshine", "do not keep near
flammable liquids", "Keep frozen/refrigerated" etc. These instructions
should be followed to the letter, lest the goods become stale and unfit
for human consumption.
This is especially so with goods that have to be frozen or
refrigerated. It is vital to heed the instructions of the manufacturer.
If the manufacturer recommends a temperature of less than 1 C and the
temperature inside the refrigerator is 4 C, there is a very high
possibility of the product going bad. Some store owners also habitually
turn off their freezers and refrigerators at night to save power (and
reduce their electricity bill), which adversely affects the shelf life
of frozen products. In fact, around two years ago, a child in the
Western Province died as a result of consuming sausages bought from a
shop which had engaged in this practice. Thus educating store owners on
the expiry dates, storage conditions etc is of paramount importance.
The next step has to be taken by the consumer. Most consumers still
do not look for the expiry dates of the products they buy. Instead, they
blindly add them to their basket (at supermarkets) or let the store
owner hand them over (at a grocery store). It is obviously in their
interest to look for the expiry date - it may not be obvious at first in
colourful packages. Most canned products have it at the bottom while
bottles have it in the neck.
It is best not to buy any product whose expiry date has been obscured
or tampered with in any way. Also check whether any seals have been
broken. Be wary of products which vaguely mention, say, a "shelf life of
24 months" without necessarily mentioning a date of manufacture. It must
also be borne in mind that products other than food, drink and
pharmaceuticals could have an expiry date - one doesn't often think that
a mosquito coil pack could have an expiry date, for example.
When a customer asks for a product, most grocery store owners just
wrap it up and hand it over. Consumers must take the time to take it out
and inspect the expiry date without just taking it away. Always insist
on a receipt (sometimes called "Proof of Purchase") where possible - if
you find that a product has gone bad after going home and opening it,
that is your ticket to a replacement or a refund as the case may be.
Complain to the store owner and the Consumer Affairs Authority when you
come across such instances. The customers must adopt a proactive stance
to fight for their rights.
Of course, the customer also has to heed the relevant instructions
for storage. If a product calls for consumption "within three days after
opening", then so be it. If the contents of a packet has to be
transferred to an airtight container, that has to be done. If they want
you to use a dry spoon, using a wet spoon will affect the shelf life.
Overall, there has to be greater awareness on expiry dates among
consumers, traders and even the authorities. We must look at how other
countries implement laws regarding expiry dates. The print and
electronic media should have a vigorous campaign on the issue to educate
every segment of society. After all, this is one instance where the
small print can and does save lives.