Reader Daniel wrote to tell us about his potentially unsafe purchase from a Safeway store in Daly City, California. When Daniel arrived at the checkout counter, he quickly checked the expiration dates on his Yves vegetarian sandwich meat only to discover that one of the packages had expired April 18th, 37 days ago, while the others had expired 4 days ago. He even took a hostage-style photograph with the expired product next to a stack of current day newspapers to help substantiate his claim. We would expect that when confronted with this information that a Safeway employee would promptly be instructed to scour the shelves as to prevent other hapless shoppers from buying the expired imitation meat, but apparently we expect too much. Daniel’s letter and photos, inside…
I’ve become an addict of the site lately, so when I had an experience today that seemed ripped from your headlines, I had to share.
As a recent vegetarian, I’ve taken a liking to Yves vegetarian meat-substitute slices, which I’ve been purchasing at my neighborhood Safeway at Westlake Mall in Daly City, California. The only thing I don’t love about them is that if I take a break from eating sandwiches for a week, I often return to them to find they’ve gone bad, even if the package is unopened. So knowing that they have a rather short shelf-life, I thought today to check the expiration date before putting the product in my cart. Imagine my surprise when I found the package in my hand had expired over a month ago–18 April ’08! I remarked about it to my family, and nearby customers were also disgusted. A quick rifling through the rest yielded four more expired packages, all dated May 21. Keep in mind that these dates say “Use by” and not “Sell by,” so it’s fair to expect at least a week or two of “usability” after you buy it before it expires.
I went to the front of the store, waited for ten minutes at the “Customer service” counter and asked for a manager. At a nearby checkstand, some kind of assistant manager answered their page, saying that “Christopher” was on break, and asked what she could do to help. I showed her the expired fake meat and expressed my displeasure, noting that the non-expired portion of product on the same shelf had expiration dates as late as mid-July, meaning that this food by my calculation had probably been on the shelf since late February, and obviously no one had checked the dates since April 18 at the earliest. She sympathized with me and apologized, but did not hint at offering me any compensation for almost selling me food that was without a doubt unfit for consumption, nor for doing the store employees’ job for free by finding all the expired packages for them. She did promise, at my request, to speak to the person responsible for checking the dates in that area.
Upon checkout I used the same checkstand with the manager-type to see if she would address the issue properly and she asked me if I’d selected any of the same product, because she wanted to give it to me for free. I did in fact, so I received my one package of “bologna” for free.
In addition to this Safeway’s constant ineptitude at keeping even the simplest products in stock (such as green onions), finding so much expired food so easily seems to tell me that I should probably stay away from this store as much as I can, despite it being so conveniently located. Even though I’ve been shopping at Safeway stores as long as I’ve been shopping, I think this might motivate me to check out their only supermarket competition in this town, Lucky. I’m certainly going to try to do as much of my shopping as I can at the also-nearby Trader Joe’s, which has never disappointed me, and whose staff are always plentiful, alert and helpful.
I’m not sure what kind of response it would have taken to completely satisfy me and make me happy to return to their store after what I just saw, but the $2.99 discount didn’t exactly cure my blues 100%. Maybe having the manager send someone immediately to check that whole shelf while I observed, and a 10% off certificate for my whole order that day would have told me they really cared. And it would only have cost them $10 since my total was $100. But hey, I’m not telling them how to run their store, I’m just telling my fellow readers how they do run it so you can make your grocery decisions accordingly.
Thanks for helping me share my story,
Daniel’s story illustrates the importance of checking food expiration dates since grocery stores often lose track of their expired inventory. These dates can play a larger role in imitation meat products because unlike real meat, these types of products often don’t change color or produce any strange smell after the “use by” date. According to the USDA, a “use by” date is a date established by the manufacturer that guarantees the product is at peak quality, therefore some products that have expired can be usable for a few days after if stored properly under 40F. Could someone safely consume 1-month-expired imitation meat? Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anyone to volunteer for that test.
Food Product Dating [USDA]