AMERICAS GROCERY stores are among the most abundant
food markets in the world.
Meatworker: We cut fresh meat here everyday.
Meatworker: Every day fresh.
We rely on stores to tell us how fresh their meat poultry and fish are, trusting those tiny dates, computer programmed and carefully stamped on every package: the sell-by dates.
Correspondent John Larson: What do they think the date means?
Woman Consumer: Its supposed to mean sell by, its only fresh till.
Consumer #2: They have to sell it by that day.
Consumer #3: Thats right and if its not out of the store then it should definitely be tossed or something.
Well actually, according to the USDA, we can rely on those dates to tell us when to freeze meat or throw it away three to five days after the date runs out for beef and pork, one or two days for chicken.
Meatworker: You could get somebody sick. The dates wrong and the meat might be going bad.
So, you think you know how fresh the meat is, but do you? What if what appears to be a promise is really a lie?
John Larson: Everybody behind the counter knows this?
Store employee: Pretty much. I dont know of anyone who dont know it.
Dateline investigated stores owned by seven of the largest grocery chains in the nation, which operate more than 7,000 stores in nearly every state to find out whether grocery stores are telling the truth about the meat they sell.
What began as a tip, turned into a
five-month Dateline hidden-camera investigation into a practice with
little or no regulation.
We investigated stores owned by seven of the largest grocery chains in the nation, which operate more than 7,000 stores in nearly every state to find out whether grocery stores are telling the truth about the meat they sell.
Our investigation began with Jim Morrison, a former bonds salesman who tried to blow the whistle on what he called a massive consumer fraud.
Jim Morrison: I just dont like big companies that rip off the little guy. Ive just got a problem with that.
The rip-off, he says, had to do with those tiny numbers the sell-by dates.
Most meat and fish come into stores in bulk, where employees cut and package it and, because the clock is always ticking, they say they generally give it around three days to sell before throwing it away. But Morrison says during trips to grocery stores near Jupiter, Florida, seven years ago, he realized the stores were secretly changing the sell-by dates on packages of meat to lengthen their shelf life.
His discovery became a crusade some might say an obsession. For two years he videotaped and documented evidence, investigating several chains, but focusing especially on stores owned by Winn Dixie, which operates more than 1,000 stores in 14 Southern states.
Jim Morrison: Every store that I visited had this scam going on.
Morrison quickly became a thorn in Winn Dixies side, even demanding the company hire him to inspect their stores. But not only did Winn Dixie deny Morrisons allegations, the company accused him of extortion and fabricating the evidence.
John Larson: So now theyre saying, He hasnt detected a problem, he is the problem?
Jim Morrison: They said that I was smuggling tampered and spoiled products and placed them on the shelves of these companies.
John Larson: Had you?
Jim Morrison: Not once.
But in December of 1997, Winn Dixie helped convince the government that Morrison was concocting a scheme... to defraud Winn Dixie. The FBI raided his home, taking his notes and tapes.
Jim Morrison: There never should have been one FBI agent anywhere near my house. Period.
No charges were ever filed against Morrison and the FBI closed the case. But it all made us wonder, what about the things he had claimed? Evidence of a scam selling out-of-date meat to the public. Was it happening at Winn Dixie or at any other stores? We decided to set out on our own, to go undercover to find out for ourselves.
We came up with a way to secretly mark the packages
of meat: a small metal bar with tiny numbers. We wore the bar like a
splint on our finger, and marked the bottom of the trays by imprinting,
pressing numbers into the styrofoam.
First, we needed a way to track large amounts of
meat out for sale and it had to be fool-proof. We came up with a way to
secretly mark the packages of meat: a small metal bar with these tiny
We wore the bar like a splint on our finger, and marked the bottom of the trays by imprinting, pressing numbers into the styrofoam, without breaking the plastic wrap.
For example, if a steak has a sell-by date of May 7th, wed impress a small zero/seven on the tray. If anyone changed the date on the label but kept the original tray, wed know it.
And then, we would shop just like you do, except sometimes to explain why we were spending so much time in the meat department wed suggest we were thinking of starting a catering business and wed ask questions.
Dateline: So do you ever change the date like once its on there?
Store worker: No. We cant. Thats... oh, no. We got cameras watching us. And this computer runs straight up to the main office. If you do something like that, you could get fired.
Cameras watching him? What he didnt know was that Datelines hidden cameras were rolling too as we investigated stores across the country to see who was telling the truth.
Dateline: Do you change the date?
Store worker: Oh, no, no, no, never change the date.
We went undercover, checking Winn Dixie stores in Dallas and Atlanta. We looked like any other shopper, but we were busy leaving our small imprints behind marks we would check later. As our hidden cameras rolled in Atlanta, a Winn Dixie employee who worked behind the meat counter told us they never, never change the sell-by date.
Dateline: Do you ever change the date or does the date always stay the same?
Store employee: No. The date stays the same.
After a few days of marking packages in Atlanta, we came back to check for our marks and found this. A steak dated Feb. 3. But when we turned it over there was our imprint our January 30 mark still visible. Someone had added four more days and put it back out for sale.
Sell-by dates are not required by
law; theyre more a good-faith promise of freshness. And Winn Dixie has
a strict policy on sell-by dates: it will not tolerate the intentional
selling of merchandise after the original sell-by-date. So, is the
store always living up to its promise? After a few days of marking
packages in Atlanta, we came back to check for our marks and found this. A
steak dated Feb. 3. But when we turned it over there was our imprint
our January 30 mark still visible. Someone had added four more days
and put it back out for sale. In Dallas, we found more of the same. Look
at this steak heres our mark showing it was dated the 11th. Its new
sell-by date? Someone added four more days giving it until the 15th.
And without our marks, we would never have known that what employees were
telling us was not true. For example, we knew these ribs went out of date
on the 6th, yesterday.
Store employee: I marked them down because theyre gonna go out of date tomorrow.
Dateline: Oh tomorrow they go out of date.
Store employee: Yeah, the 8th.
Just to make sure someone wasnt just reusing styrofoam trays, we also compared our pictures of meat. Even though they had new labels, we could double check, and see that the fat the marbling matched. But just how dangerous is meat that is not fresh? Can it make you sick? Well, it turns out that one simple question is both up for debate and a touchy subject. The dates do not have anything to do with safety, says Jill Hollingsworth, a spokesperson for the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association for grocery stores. She says meat, poultry and fish are safe, regardless of their sell-by dates, as long as they are cooked properly.
Cooking products thoroughly to the required
temperatures will destroy all the harmful bacteria that could make a
person sick, Hollingsworth says. But Ron Schnitzer disagrees.
Theyre playing Russian roulette, says Schnitzer, a microbiologist
who some grocery stores themselves rely on to test their food. He says
although expired sell-by dates do not mean the meat is bad, bacteria is
growing, sometimes harmful bacteria, like salmonella, listeria, and
staphaureus and that is a risky game.
Cooking will definitely remove the harmful bacteria, the pathogens, if theyre there in low numbers, Schnitzer says. If they are in high numbers, what guarantee do we have that were actually going to get rid of them?
Cooking will kill the harmful bacteria that will cause the illness, Jill Hollingsworth counters.
John Larson: Can you guarantee it?
Jill Hollingsworth: The cooking temperatures that are...
Larson: Can you guarantee it?
Jill Hollingsworth: The cooking temperatures that are recommended for consumers are tested and designed and recommended by the federal government because they were specifically established as the temperatures that kill all of the harmful bacteria.
Larson: Is that a yes?
Jill Hollingsworth: Cooking kills bacteria. But scientists tell us some bacteria give off toxins that are resistant to cooking, poisons that can make you sick.
'Cooking products thoroughly to the
required temperatures will destroy all the harmful bacteria that could
make a person sick.
DR. JILL HOLLINGSWORTH
Food Marketing Institute
Although no one knows
how many illnesses are attributable to meat, the Centers for Disease
Control estimates 5,000 Americans die every year from food poisoning from
all food sources, and 76 million of us get sick. But because it can take
days for a food-borne illness show up, tracking it back to its source is
almost impossible. How do you remember what you ate 48 hours ago? Or
even worse, 72 hours ago, says Schnitzer. So we asked the
microbiologist to run a test for us. We had seen something odd about some
hams at a Winn Dixie store in Dallas. All the Winn Dixie labels were
placed in exactly the same way. The sell-by date was in March, but we
checked underneath. The original sell-by date was January 31st. Someone
had added 38 days.
So we bought one, packed it in dry ice, rushed it overnight to Schnitzers laboratory and asked him to measure the amount of bacteria on it. When you get above three million, youve got a lot of bacteria, Schnitzer says. And the level for our ham? Nineteen million, Schnitzer says. Thats six times the level at which meat is spoiling and risk increasing, according to Schnitzer. Not exactly the ham we were promised back in the store.
Dateline: Are they fresh?
Store employee: Yeah, they just, we just had an abundance of them and with the low salt, not a lot of people like the low salt. Actually its a good ham.
John Larson: So even though its got too much bacteria, if you go home and cook that ham, are you going to get sick?
Ron Schnitzer: For the bulk of the population, no. Theres probably very little likelihood youre going to get ill. But are you going to feed this to a young individual? Are you going to feed this to an immuno-compromised individual? They could become ill.
And we did more testing. At
another store in Dallas, we tracked this fish out for sale for six days.
Its bacterial count? 230 million.
John Larson: Under any circumstances, should anybody be eating that fish?
Ron Schnitzer: There is no circumstance that you can cook out 230 million bacteria. Im not willing to take the risk that one pathogen isnt going to survive.
There is no circumstance that you can cook out 230
million bacteria. Im not willing to take the risk that one pathogen
isnt going to survive.
Altogether at Winn
Dixie not including the fish this is what we found: 27 examples of
re-dated meat in six out of the seven stores we checked.
So were some employees breaking company rules, risking their jobs? If so, why? This man thinks he knows. In 1997, Robert Becker was only 22-years-old when he was hired as a meatcutter for Winn Dixie. I moved to Tallahassee and thats the first job I applied for, he says. In the six months he worked there, Becker says workers in his department routinely added days to expiring packages of meat by changing the sell-by dates.
John Larson: If its not about selling it by this date, then whats it about?
Robert Becker: Its about making money.
Becker says the order to change sell-by dates came from the manager of his department who Becker says told him he got bonuses based on how profitable the meat department was.
He would come in and say, Were not doing something right, because my bonuses are crap. And we need to make changes in here, Becker said. And his changes were to sell everything possible. Becker says he even saw his boss rooting through the bone barrel the garbage pail for the meat department looking for pieces he could grind into hamburger. He would take it out, trim it off, weigh it and say, This is what youre throwing away. Money, Becker says. And Dateline learned that Robert Becker wasnt alone. In Alabama, another former Winn Dixie meatcutter who asked not to be identified, told us that while he was taught the right way to handle meat in Winn Dixies training school, the tune quickly changed when he reported to work.
John Larson: Whos teaching you to re-wrap, re-date, essentially fool the public?
Meatcutter: Everybody learns new coming in. So somebody essentially is going to teach you, be that a marget manager or another experienced meatcutter.
John Larson: Was this just one store where you noticed this
Meatcutter: No. I worked in four stores for this chain.
John Larson: So all four market managers were essentially asking you to rewrap, re-date and change the date?
Meatcutter: Sure. Theres nothing different from market to market. Perhaps more disturbing, he told us Dateline was likely missing most of the rewrapped, out-of-date meat, because the meat usually comes back for sale not in the same tray so we could track it but in different trays, in different forms.
Meatcutter: I can take a roast and cut it into steaks, make more money. And youd never know.
And when aging chicken started to smell bad? He says theyd just take the skins off, and charge more.
Meatcutter: We takeem to the back, skin em, then pace em in a tray. And sure, youre gonna get more per pound for em.
Grocery stores operate on razor-thin profit margins last year Winn Dixie reported making less than one half of one percent profit. And theres added pressure in meat and fish departments where products are perishable and timing is everything, where a pound of meat thrown away comes straight off the bottom line.
John Larson: Did you ever tell the public, Listen, this is what were doing here. Were actually re-wrapping, re-dating?
Robert Becker: No.
John Larson: I mean its almost like the industrys dirty little secret.
CHECKING OTHER STORES
We expanded our investigation to include six more of the biggest, most recognizable names in the grocery business Kroger, Publix, A & P, Safeway, Albertsons, and Pathmark which together run thousands of stores in nearly every state.
Is it the
industrys dirty little secret? Do other supermarket chains do the same
thing? We expanded our investigation to include six more of the biggest,
most recognizable names in the grocery business Kroger, Publix,
A&P, Safeway, Albertsons and Pathmark which together run thousands
of stores in nearly every state. We would investigate a number of stores
owned by each company, and spend about a week in each store. How would
First stop was Albertsons with 1,700 stores in cities like Los Angeles, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City. We chose six stores in Dallas and Denver, including an upscale Denver store, complete with its own dry cleaning, Starbucks, and pet care center.
Just like we had at Winn Dixie, we imprinted the bottom of trays, tracking about 30 packages a day per store. And like Winn Dixie, Albertsons has a strict policy that prohibit(s) the extension or alteration of any sell by dates.
But it wasnt long before re-wraps of meat with expired sell-by dates began showing up at Albertsons, too.
The date on these pork chops is March 16. But look on the side: we found our imprint showing they used to be dated the 13th.
We found 16 packages of re-dated meat in this store alone.
The manager of the meat department was friendly.
Dateline: We just have a question about dates.
But we wondered, was he completely unaware of what was going on in his own department, or was he telling us something that wasnt true?
Dateline: So then do you ever change the dates?
Store Worker: No, its against company policy. Id get fired.
At another Denver Albertsons we found an unusually clever way to secretly change dates.
There are two labels.
New labels dated the 17th, covering up old dates that said the 15th, placed so carefully we almost missed them.
Dateline: Do you ever change the date?
Store worker: Oh, no, no, no, never change the date.
At another Denver Albertsons, this manager told us he had heard about re-dating, but hed never do it.
Store worker: I know 16 guys who have been fired for doing that.
Dateline: Why would they do that?
Store worker: Why would they do that? Because we have gross profit numbers that we have to get out of there and everyone gets all paranoid. Thats a three dollar package and I mean Im not going to lose my job for three dollars.
Yet in his department alone, we found seven re-dated packages.
Store worker: Never mess with dates.
Sell-by dates are not required by law; theyre more a good-faith promise of freshness.
In Dallas, we found
more of the same: expiring sell by dates, with new dates added.
Re-dated lamb and re-dated chicken, both given two more days to sell. Re-dated beef given three extra days. Re-dated pork given four.
And remember the former meat worker warning us that most re-dating would be impossible to track because it included replacing the old trays? Look at this: at one Dallas Albertsons, we imprinted a beef skirt steak in a yellow tray.
When we came back the next day, we couldnt find it. But we did find a beef skirt in a black tray that was exactly the same weight and price of the steak in the yellow tray. And this steak was dated five days later.
Was it the same meat? We cued up our pictures before and after. They matched. It was the same steak.
So in all, what did we find at Albertsons?
We found re-wrapping and re-dating at all six stores we checked a total of 48 packages.
Next we tried Publix which owns nearly 700 stores in cities like Miami, Orlando and Tampa. We visited eight stores in Atlanta and Columbia, South Carolina. In four of the stores, we found no re-dating at all.
Among the other four, we found only eight re-dated products like this Cajun catfish given three more days to sell. Compared to Winn Dixie and Albertsons much less re-dating at Publix.
Next up, Safeway which owns 1,600 stores in cities like Seattle and Washington, D.C. Safeways policy on changing the sell-by date specifically prohibits employees from changing the package date.
A Safeway meat manager in Denver:
Dateline: Do you ever change the date once its on there?
Meat worker: No. We cant. Oh, no, no. We got cameras watching us. And this computer runs right up the main office. If you do something like that, youd get fired.
But in one week, we found 15 packages of re-dated meat in this managers department, almost always extending the sell-by date by four days.
At another Denver Safeway we had just been there a few days, marking packages when the store manager stopped us and asked if we were taking pictures of the meat.
Store employee: Who are you with? What are you doing this for?
Dateline: Actually were with NBC News.
We told him we were doing a story about re-dating meat.
Meat worker: This isnt re-dated.
You would think a store manager would want to know if someone in his meat department was selling meat past the sell-by date. But all he wanted from us was our cameras and videotape.
You would think a
store manager would want to know if someone in his meat department was
selling meat past the sell-by date. But all he wanted from us was our
cameras and videotape.
Manager: I need your camera and your film.
Dateline: You cant take our property.
Dateline: No, you cant do that.
Manager: Well you can get out of the store then.
Dateline: OK. Be happy to.
Manager: You buying this?
Meat worker: Oh, no youre not. (grabs cart)
Dateline: Oh yes, we are, maam.
Meat worker: Oh no youre not.
Dateline: Youre not going to sell us your food?
Meat worker: No, not with you guys doing undercover work.
But we still had our videotapes, which later showed someone had re-wrapped and added days to at least four pieces of meat. These country style ribs started off dated the 15th, but here they are re-dated the 16th.
All together, this is what we found at Safeway: 21 rewrapped, re-dated packages in all three Safeways we checked.
On to three more chains:
Kroger the largest chain in the country with 2,400 stores in cities like Detroit, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati.
A&P with 800 stores in cities like New Orleans, Hartford and the suburbs of New Jersey.
And Pathmark with 138 stores in cities like Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware.
Their policies seem clear: Kroger strictly prohibits the redating of any products, including fresh meat and seafood.
A&P? Well, heres an A&P meat manager in Maplewood, New Jersey:
Dateline: So youre not allowed to rewrap or anything?
Store employee: No, we have to take it out.
And the same for Pathmark, at least according to these Pathmark meat managers.
Dateline: But do you change the date?
Store employee: No, we leave the date on it.
Dateline: Can they change the date?
Store employee: No. They have to put the same date on it.
And yet we found rewrapped meat with days added in every single Kroger, A&P and Pathmark store that we checked.
At Kroger in Columbia, South Carolina, we found re-dated crab cakes. A Kroger date placed right over the packers date. In all: 26 packages of re-dated pork, seafood, and beef at three out of three Kroger stores we checked.
At A&P in New Jersey we found five packages of veal. Our mark showed they were first dated February 26. The new date: March 5th theyd all been given an extra seven days to sell. All added up at A&P 33 re-dated pieces of beef, pork, and chicken in three out of three A&P stores that we checked.
We found rewrapped meat with days added in every single Kroger, A&P and Pathmark store that we checked.
At Pathmark, also in
New Jersey, we found this top-of-the-line, all-natural steak for almost
$10 a pound, re-dated for two more days. In all, we found 38 re-dated
packages of beef, pork and fish in three out of three Pathmark stores we
But there was something different we found at Pathmark a meat worker who unlike anyone else we talked to, appeared to tell us the truth.
Dateline: Do they put the same date on it?
Meat worker: No, they put another date.
Dateline: Oh so they re-wrap it and put another date?
Meat worker: Yeah.
Dateline: But how would you know?
Meat worker: Thats what Im saying. Sometimes... they could fool anybody.
Then we told him how others in his department said they dont re-date.
Dateline: We spoke with someone and he was like, oh, we dont change dates and stuff. Why would he say that?
Meat worker: Thats what they said. I work back there, you know what Im saying? Just take my word.
So our grand total? All together, we spent
46 days inside stores at seven grocery store chains, 33 different stores,
where we found re-dating in 28 201 packages in all with sell-by dates
on fresh meat and fish extended from one to seven days. It was time to ask
the meat managers the men who promised us it never, never happens in
their stores to explain.
John Larson: Seventeen pieces of meat in your department are rewrapped and dates added to the expiration date. How is that?
Store employee: (shrugs and turns away)
We had investigated seven of the largest supermarket chains. Wed been told over and over by meat managers that theyd never re-date meat.
Dateline: Do you ever re-wrap stuff?
Store manager: Rewrap stuff? Were not allowed to do it.
So why had we found 200 re-dated packages:
new labels hiding old labels?
or new sell-by dates when the old ones expired?
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
We needed answers. Remember this meat manager at Albertsons in Denver?
Dateline: So then do you ever change the dates?
Store employee: No, its against company policy. Id get fired. We thought it was time to ask the managers about what wed found 16 re-dated packages in his department.
John Larson: Hi, Im John Larson. Were here to ask you about re-wrapping and re-dating meat.
Store employee: I dont know anything about that.
John Larson: Can we ask you some questions?
Store employee: No you cant.
John Larson: Do you want to see some video on it? (Door slams)
He was less interested than we had hoped.
Next we tried this Denver Safeway manager. Remember him?
Dateline: Do you ever like change the date once its on there?
Store employee: No. We cant. Oh, no.
So we caught up with him before work. We told him someone in his department had re-dated 15 pieces of meat.
Store employee: Who did that?
John Larson: Thats what we wanted to ask you about.
So we showed him our videotape.
John Larson: For example this is a pork chop.
Store employee: Whose store is this at?
John Larson: Thats your store.
We even read him a list.
John Larson: Beef rib eye four days, beef ribs five days...
Store employee: All I can do is tell my guys to do this just like you can tell your crew to do whatever. I mean when Im not there...
John Larson: They can do whatever they want.
Store employee: Theyre not supposed to do whatever they want.
Next we tried the meat manager at the A&P in Maplewood, NJ. Remember him?
Dateline: So youre not allowed to rewrap or anything?
Store employee: No, we have to take it out.
John Larson: So how is it in about a week we wind up with 17 examples of where pieces of meat in your department are re-wrapped and days are added to the expiration date. How is that?
Store employee: (shrugs) I cant see it.
He suggested we talk to his boss, the store manager. So we did... asking about the 17 re-dated piece of meat that wed found.
John Larson: Is this store policy?
Store manager: No, no, its not the policy.
John Larson: Its not?
Store manager: Its not.
John Larson: Why is it happening?
Store manager: It should not be done.
John Larson: Meat department employee?
Meat department employee: I dont remember doing that.
In the end all the meat managers we asked claimed to be totally in the dark.
John Larson: Do you think that upper management in a lot of these grocery stores has any idea that their meat products are being re-dated, relabeled?
Ron Schnitzer: I dont see how management could possibly not know.
Microbiologist Ron Schnitzer, who has worked
closely with grocery stores in the field, with managers and employees, for
30 years, does not know the managers we spoke with. But he suspects meat
managers are not the ones to blame.
Ron Schnitzer: Someone had to provide that practice to these market managers. It didnt come from below them.
John Larson: Based on your experience do you think management knows about it?
Rod Preiss: Oh, definitely, for sure.
Rod Preiss is a New Jersey State Health Inspector. He says after 25 years of inspecting meat departments, hes never surprised when a manager feigns ignorance.
John Larson: So the meat manager must sort of say, Well it wasnt me? and theyll say, Well, he must be doing it. And its one of these (pointing)?
Rod Preiss: Exactly, right. Theyre finger pointing.
John Larson: So if we were able to get to one of these meat managers what do you think hed tell you?
Rod Preiss: I think that hes under the gun. He has the budget that he has to keep to. And he doesnt want to lose his job. So he has to do what he has to do to make his department look good.
THE STORES RESPOND
So we went straight to the top, sending letters to executives of all seven corporations Winn Dixie, Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway, A&P, Pathmark and Publix. We sent them lists detailing exactly what pieces of meat we had found, what they cost, how much they weighed, in which of their stores we found them, and on what days. We offered to show them some of our videotape, if they would agree to an interview with us. All seven declined, instead sending one page replies including statements like these:
Kroger The allegations raised by Dateline are very troubling... the Company has taken immediate steps to address this issue.
Safeway We take seriously any suggestion that our product dating policy may have been violated and have undertaken our own investigation...
Albertsons The allegations brought to our attention by NBC Dateline, if true, would violate our policies. We are taking these allegations very seriously...
Winn Dixie We will not tolerate the intentional selling of merchandise after the original sell-by date.
A&P (Our) policy requires the removal from sale of fresh meat, poultry and seafood products upon the expiration of the original sell by dates...
Publix an extended date... is against our policy.
Only Pathmark offered a different explanation. Remember, Pathmark meat workers had told us they never changed the dates.
Dateline: Can they change the date?
Store employee: No. They have to put the same date on it.
But after reviewing Datelines detailed lists, Pathmark told us they do change dates that Pathmark has a dual dating policy but promised all store-cut meat is removed from sale within 72 hours.
Its a bit complicated, but Pathmark says if the meat doesnt sell, they re-inspect the meat and re-date it. How are you supposed to know if the meat youre buying has been re-dated? Pathmark admits, you cant.
But, Dateline learned something else that Pathmark uses secret codes. A tiny 1 in the lower corner of the label means its the first time the meat has been given a sell-by date. Other marks, like letters or these 2s, mean the meat has been re-dated, and that it may secretly be two days older than other packages with the same sell-by date.
Now if youre confused by all of this, the double dates and the secret codes dont feel bad. Because apparently, so are Pathmarks meatcutters. When we learned about the secret coding system, we went back and checked the packages which wed kept in a freezer. Remember theyd all been re-dated. Almost all the packages were marked with 1s, as if theyd never been re-dated. In other words, Pathmark meat workers got their secret code wrong, at least 36 times.
Pathmark says its reexamining its policies, but is sure its meat is safe. All seven companies wed investigated couldnt explain why we had found so many re-dated packages of meat in violation of their own policies.
Re-dating meat is allowed by the law, according to the
1972 laws of the Department of Agriculture. And its a voluntary
practice, putting dates on meat.
DR. JILL HOLLINGSWORTH
Food Marketing Institute
Could anyone explain?
One organization did agree to an interview with us, although it would be
more difficult than we thought. Remember, Dr. Jill Hollingsworth, who
represents the Food Marketing Institute, the trade association
representing all the stores wed investigated? She agreed to sit down to
an interview, but only if we agreed to some conditions.
We couldnt ask her about any specific products or grocery stores, couldnt show her any documents or videotapes, and no matter how many questions we had, our interview would end after 30 minutes. So, we told her about our investigation: 200 examples of supermarkets breaking their own rules.
John Larson: How do you think that is? Why is that happening?
Dr. Jill Hollingsworth: The dating of product is voluntary. Stores can legally, according to the 1972 Department of Agriculture law, rewrap and re-date meat. But we werent asking about the law. We wanted to know why stores were saying one thing and doing another. So we tried again.
John Larson: Do you have any idea why so much re-dated meat would be out there?
Hollingsworth: Re-dating meat is allowed by the law, according to the 1972 laws of the Department of Agriculture. And its a voluntary practice, putting dates on meat. We tried two more times.
John Larson: How do you think its happening that we found so much?
Hollingsworth: I think that re-wrapping and re-dating of product is done in stores on a voluntary basis and according to the law.
We asked again and finally got a different answer.
Hollingsworth: Lets say a steak. And they can sell it for four days. They may put that product out there, but date it only for two days. That way, after two days, if it hasnt sold, they check that product. And if it meets their quality standard, theyll rewrap it, theyll date it again for the remaining two days. But still, it never goes beyond the four days. After that theyll throw it away.
Dated again? But all the stores, except Pathmark, had been insisting they never do that, and it didnt explain what wed found.
In the United States, dating meat is a voluntary
practice and in most places re-dating is not against the law. Stores make
their own policies, and police themselves.
Doctor, what we found is that it often goes beyond that four days, we
found it goes another four days, another seven days, when they rewrap it,
theyre not putting the same date on it. Theyre adding days. What do
you think of that?
Karen Brown: Dont answer that Jill.
And thats when a senior vice president sitting off camera decided to cut in.
John Larson: How can you not answer that?
Karen Brown: Youre getting into specifics of research that you collected, and we have an agreement...
John Larson: You cant answer questions about our research?
Karen Brown: We have an agreement, she can tell you about industry practices and thats what shes told you.
John Larson: Im asking her about industry practices...
Karen Brown: No, youre asking...
John Larson: Im not asking her about specific stores, specific pieces of meat, Im asking why the heck have we found 200 examples of re-dated meat?
Karen Brown: You have 20 minutes left.
John Larson (to Hollingsworth): Do you have any idea?
Hollingsworth: Ask the question again.
John Larson: I mean, could it be rogue employees? Could it be an accident?
Hollingsworth: Re-dating meat is a voluntary practice. Putting any date on meat is a voluntary practice...
A voluntary practice Dr. Hollingsworth thought it was so important that in our brief interview, she repeated it 22 times.
And shes right. In the United States, dating meat is a voluntary practice and in most places re-dating is not against the law. Stores make their own policies, and police themselves.
And that, critics say, is exactly the problem. There is no federal law prohibiting supermarkets from secretly changing their own sell-by dates on meat and fish. So whos looking out for you?
Dateline talked to regulators in every state and found 34 states have no laws whatsoever against stores rewrapping and changing their sell-by dates. The rest have some regulations, including Colorado, Texas, and Georgia, three states we visited.
We wanted to talk to
the federal government the USDA about sell-by dates, food safety,
and what we had learned: 200 packages apparently in violation of the
companies own rules. But the USDA declined an on-camera interview.
It turns out, its up to individual states to check whether supermarkets are re-dating meat without telling their customers. New Jersey Health Inspector Rod Preiss says he first discovered re-dated meat in a store back in 1987.
John Larson: So you caught em.
Rod Preiss: We caught em.
John Larson: And you wrote em up.
Rod Preiss: Well, unfortunately because of the laws in the state of New Jersey, we couldnt write them up.
Preiss says he found laws in New Jersey against re-dating milk, but not meat.
Rod Preiss: We warned them that this was not in the consumers best interest. And thats all we could basically do.
John Larson: If we were to hand you the evidence and say, Listen, heres all the products that we found. Theyre re-wrapping it, re-dating it. Give it all to you. Youd say, Thank you. But theres nothing you can do about it?
Rod Preiss: Nothing we can do without a standardized code, yes, thats correct.
New Jersey is not alone. Dateline talked to regulators in every state and found 34 states have no laws whatsoever against stores rewrapping and changing their sell-by dates. The rest have some regulations, including Colorado, Texas, and Georgia, three states we visited.
Which made us wonder, how many times over the years had any of those states, where we had found 103 violations in about a month, enforced their own laws? Their best estimate? Not once.
Carl Kruger: Right now its an industry thats out of control. Its self-monitored and its self-regulated. Its inherently fraught with danger.
For the past year, New York State Senator Carl Kruger has been pushing a bill that would make it against the law to re-date fresh meat. He says thats something the grocery stores in New York, at least publicly, say is already against their own policies.
John Larson: It sounds pretty much like a no-brainer.
Carl Kruger: Its a no-brainer. My bill is about a half a page long.
Yet, Kruger says his bill has stalled, the victim, he believes, of a quiet campaign by forces he cant see.
Carl Kruger: Good lobbying is that you never see the guy thats doing the lobbying.
John Larson: Yes, well lobbying never happens in the lobby?
Carl Kruger: Absolutely not.
Suzanne Jacobs: I thought we were home free.
And hes not the only one having trouble getting laws passed. Four years ago, former State Representative Suzanne Jacobs tried a similar bill in Florida. She says in no time flat, it went from a sure thing to dead meat.
John Larson: Do you know exactly who was responsible for squashing your bill?
Suzanne Jacobs: Of course I do.
John Larson: Which stores?
Suzanne Jacobs: The big ones. Publix, Winn Dixie, Albertsons and the Florida Retail Federation.
Thats a federation representing the major grocery store chains in Florida. The Federation tells us it didnt like the bill, but has no recollection of lobbying against it.
Carl Kruger: We shouldnt be allowing the industry to basically drive the engine. Were consumers. We should be driving the engine.
Critics say a sell-by date should be about two things: being safe, and telling the truth. Customers always thought it was.
John Larson: Do you trust that date?
Consumer: I go by it, yes.
Consumer: You have to. You dont really have a choice.
But now we know that sometimes, what appears to be a promise to America sell by those two tiny words on every package you buy, is no promise at all.