RALEIGH — Shopping for meat at the grocery store can be tricky. Consumers cannot smell a package to determine whether what is inside is fresh, so most rely on expiration dates. But how reliable are those dates?
What most consumers do not know is that expiration or "sell by" dates are actually used not just as a guide for consumers, but also as inventory control by stores.
"It's not really intended to be a definition of the end of the shelf life of that product," says Dr. Duane Larick of theN.C. State Food Science Department. "It's not really an indicator of the safety of that product."
In fact, stores can repackage meat and create a new "sell by" date. Soon, that could become against the law in North Carolina.
A bill has been introduced in the stateLegislaturethat would prohibit relabeling.
The proposed bill would make it illegal for grocers to create new expiration dates for most perishable foods, including beef, pork and seafood.
The bill might not make it far though, since the federal government sets labelling guidelines. As a result, North Carolina might not be able to set its own standards.
"The states can't usurp that federal authority, so there is a small question on the constitutionality of this," says the North Carolina Agriculture Department's James Knight.
Knight says theAgriculture Departmenthas had no complaints from consumers or Health Departments because stores can live or die by the quality of their products.
"Most of them mark expirations dates on their meat products, and then when they get close to that time, they either pull them off the shelves or offer them at discount prices," Knight says.
Mandating expiration dates on perishable foods could cost consumers more at the check-out counter.
"I really do think that we would be increasing the cost of product in the grocery store," Larick says. "We would certainly be increasing the level of the regulatory issue for small retailers and small processors in the state."
Poultry is already covered by legislation at the Federal and state levels.