Friday, January 1, 2010

Expiration Dates

The meaning of expiration dates varies from product to product and from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some kinds of products cannot "expire," but they still have expiration dates. Tired of arguing about this issue, I decided to do some research. My research vindicated my understanding was correct.

Contrary to popular opinion, expiration dates on foods, drugs and cosmetics have no standard legal meaning. The meaning depends on the intention of whoever applied the label. A manufacturer's expiration label may be replaced for any reason by a distributor or a retailer, with no legal ramifications. Terms like "Best if used by," or "Sell by" or "Expiration date," while obviously different in their intended meanings, are indistinguishable from a legal perspective. (“US v. Farinella.,” 2009)

In the US v. Farinella decision, the court noted various reasons why an expiration date might be assigned to a product. The manufacturer may be attempting to provide a basis to recall a batch of product, or to limit liability, but usually dates are assigned to insure product turnover, so that the oldest product is sold first. The court also mentioned the possibility that expiration dates may be used “as a method of price discrimination." (“US v. Farinella.,” 2009) Products may be labeled with expiration dates to encourage consumers to purchase their product unnecessarily just to drum up business for the manufacturer. Consequently consumers may make their own decision about what expiration dates mean on a product-by-product basis, though they take the risk that important expiration dates may be ignored.

In the case of US v. Charles Farinella, the defendant was convicted of fraud for purchasing expired product, relabeling it as fresh, and reselling it to Dollar stores as a fresh product. The defendant won his appeal on the basis that the “best if used by” date had been interpreted by the lower court as an expiration date, and that the lower court had accepted expert testimony about undocumented FDA procedure as if it had the force of law, saying “It is a denial of due process of law to convict a person of a crime because he violated some bureaucrat’s secret understanding of the law.” (“US v. Farinella.,” 2009)

The court ruling mentioned that the specific product in question was “shelf-stable” and could have been as viable ten years later as it was a day after the “best if used by date.” The court also determined that the FDA has no authority to require expiration labeling or to enforce such labeling. (“US v. Farinella.,” 2009)

US v. Farinella. (2009). US Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit, 558 F. 3d 695.

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