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Expired goods and public vigilance

BEFORE I begin today’s article, I wish to say that beginning next week, I will be doing a sequence of articles which deal with specific issues of national interest. These issues will be addressed from an objective rather than a personal perspective. To demonstrate this point, I wish to relate an incident that occurred in the late 80s while I was serving as a director on the Board of a financial institution. A staff member approached me complaining that another member of staff had been promoted over him. The complainant immediately launched into a personal attack on his peer. I informed him that I would not address the issue unless a case was presented which does not include a personal character assassination of his fellow worker, but dealt with the promotion criterion and not the individual.

In this election year, we should all try to deal with the issues at hand without personally attacking anyone, since in many cases, those on the receiving end are themselves unaware of the issue being discussed. For example, there will be lot of rumours of who is likely to fill positions in any new government. It is hoped that good sense will prevail, and that persons on all sides of the political divide make pronouncements on facts and not fiction.

I now wish to go into today’s article. Recently, while heading home from work, I stopped at a gas station on the East Bank to purchase a bar of chocolate. A cursory examination of the expiry date revealed that the product just had four months to go before it reached the end of its shelf-life.  When I pointed this out to the young cashier, she readily obliged and brought me another bar — which was also expired. So were the subsequent three or four other bars that she brought, something which caused her genuine surprise and embarrassment, judging from the look on her face.  To the credit of the establishment, the supervisor who was present immediately removed all the chocolates from the shelf.

This incident was not, unfortunately, my first run-in with expired chocolate.  A previous encounter involved chocolate from a fairly well-established entity, and the reason the person in charge gave for their stocking of expired confectionery was that the business had recently changed hands, and there was some slip-up in the stock tracking.

The above incidents were mentioned to introduce this week’s area of critical attention: Our attitude towards food safety, particularly when it comes to paying attention to expiration dates.

A while ago, if I recall correctly, there was a report in the press about the Food and Drug Department seizing expired goods during a campaign targeting local retailers.  Some of the goods seized were a month or so overdue at the time of the report, but others were past the date of expiration by almost, and sometimes even more than, one whole year.

We do not have a culture of general consumer vigilance or even awareness, so when we go to make our purchases, most of us often pick up item after item without taking even the quick glance it would need to determine whether something is expired or not.

Granted some retailers might have some stocktaking glitches; I know of instances where foodstuff is offered for a lower price, once they are past the expiry date by a few days or weeks.

To use the example of chocolate, usually the most serious consequence of eating chocolate after the expiry date – according to various sources – is a bad taste in your mouth, primarily from the cocoa butter, which forms the basis for most chocolate going rancid.

‘The shelf-life of chocolate,” according to one website, “is generally a year. Ingredients such as nuts will shorten the shelf-life. Chocolate kept beyond one year may suffer flavour loss or texture changes.’

Fair enough, but what about other products which, if consumed past the expiry date, knowingly or unknowingly, may result in really harmful or even fatal consequences?

Looking up the issue online, I discovered that basically there are two major types of warning regarding the expiration date or shelf-life of products.  The ‘Use By’ date is the date beyond which there is no guarantee of safety in consuming that particular item.  Then there is the ‘Best Before’ date which basically means that while the product may not pose a health risk to you if consumed after this date, there is no guarantee of freshness or quality of taste if you do.

From further online research, and consulting with others whose knowledge of it exceeds my layman’s perspective, the gravest danger from expired or inadequately preserved food products comes from botulism poisoning.  While botulism from canned food has virtually been eliminated around the world, the WHO (World Health Organisation) still has it on its radar, enough in fact to feature a very useful Botulism Fact Sheet on its website.

The botulinal toxin,” the fact sheet reads, “has been found in a variety of foods, including low-acid preserved vegetables, such as green beans, spinach, mushrooms, and beets; fish, including canned tuna, fermented, smoked and salted fish; and meat products, such as ham, chicken and sausage.

One may be tempted to say that we don’t have widespread or even sporadic cases of food poisoning from expired goods in Guyana, so a focus on consumer awareness of expiration dates is a non-issue; and I am not in a position to qualify the argument either for or against the extent of persons becoming ill from expired foods.  The point of this column, however, is that as individuals, we need to adopt the best option in this situation when it comes to safeguarding our health: And that means taking the time to check if the food items you buy are past the expiry date.  And as consumers, we need to ensure that we get value for our money, something there is no guarantee of receiving if we settle for products which are sold to us after their ‘Use By’ or ‘Best Before’ date.

Finally, another aspect of the Expiry Date issue which should be addressed is that of our attitude and awareness of the medicines we take, either over-the-counter (OTC) or by prescription.  That one, however, deserves a column all by itself.

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