This story was reported by the staff of The Princeton Summer Journal and written by Emily Barrera Cedeno, Jasmyn Bednar, Justin Fajar, and Angela Nguyen.
Children’s ibuprofen. Pepto Bismol. Contraceptive sponges.
These are just a few of the expired products found in an investigation by reporters of The Princeton Summer Journal on the shelves of New Jersey’s pharmacies and convenience stores.
There were 41 expired products found among seven different stores—Walgreens, CVS, 7-Eleven, Tropical Supermarket, Family Dollar, Rite Aid, and Colonial Farms.
Eleven items were found at a New Brunswick Walgreens, including baby food, allergy medicine, and cold and flu medication. Ten were found at the Tropical Supermarket in North Brunswick, and nine at a neighboring North Brunswick CVS. A handful were found at Trenton’s Colonial Farms and Family Dollar, and a 7-Eleven and a Rite Aid in New Brunswick. The oldest expired product, a bottle of liquid Dial Soap found at Colonial Farms grocery store, expired in December 2017.
A majority of the products were three months past their expiration date, with two products over six months expired and three products over a year old. The products include aspirin, glucose testing strips, and baby food, which expired in April, May, and June 2019, respectively. Out of 41 items, 19 were medicinal, 17 were food products, and five were hygiene products.
Expiration dates are sometimes disregarded by consumers, who believe that they can still consume goods past the recommended date. According to an article on the FDA website, “expired medical products can be less effective or risky due to a change in chemical composition or a decrease in strength. Certain expired medications are at risk of bacterial growth and sub-potent antibiotics can fail to treat infections, leading to more serious illnesses and antibiotic resistance.” For instance, expired glucose testing strips like the ones found at a North Brunswick CVS may lead to inaccurate readings, which could be detrimental to diabetics.
The FDA began to require expiration dates on all medication in 1979. According to their site, “drug expiration dates reflect the time period during which the product is known to remain stable, which means it retains its strength, quality, and purity when it is stored.” However, the government does not regulate expiration dates within the food industry, with the exception of infant formula.
Many of the stores were located in low-income areas, where residents rely on local stores and don’t always have other options available.
The concept of people not having choices in the stores they shop at is called a food desert, which is defined by the USDA as “an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food.” New Jersey has food deserts, which contributes to food insecurity among residents, but it also has problems with a lack of medications. The number of stores selling expired products in New Jersey only adds to the problem of food and medicine insecurity. Notably, a few stores selected for the investigation in Trenton had closed in the previous year.
It’s important to note that the large majority of products investigated were unexpired. At one CVS in Trenton, no expired goods were found—the manager said they restock the shelves every Friday. All of these stores have a large inventory with a proportionally small staff, and products may slip through checks every so often. This does not necessarily speak to gross negligence across the board in these corporations, but rather can speak to human error.
According to the CDC, in the United States 76 million people a year get sick from the food they eat. When food expires, the nutrients they provide start to degrade—not to mention the fact that eating expired food can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain. Eating expired food can expose people to harmful bacteria such as E. coli.
At each store, managers declined to give a comment directly to reporters. When the owner of Colonial Farms was confronted about the expired products found in his store, reporters from this paper were asked to leave.
When reached, Christopher Savarese, the director of public relations for Rite Aid, said, “We take this kind of incident very seriously, as we do the health and welfare of our customers. While we believe this to be an isolated case, this is totally unacceptable to Rite Aid. We have very strict policies, procedures and training in place to prevent outdated products on our shelves.” He added, “Our local management will be visiting the store, and we are using this as an opportunity to retrain our associates, to ensure that everyone understands our policies and procedures.”
Randy Guiler, a vice president for Family Dollar, replied with a similar statement, “We have store procedures to routinely check sell-by dates and to remove items from our shelves that have surpassed those dates. If instances occur where an item has been identified that surpassed its sell-by date, we immediately re-check the products in our store and reinforce these procedures with our store associates.”
CVS, Walgreens, 7-Eleven, Tropical Supermarket, and Colonial Farms did not respond to requests for comment.
The legal fights over expired products in the region have gone on for well over a decade. In October 2006, Rite Aid faced a civil suit in New Jersey for selling expired non-prescription medicine and baby food, which was settled for $650,000. The following year, the state pursued a civil suit against Duane Reade, a regional pharmacy chain, for similar reasons. It was settled for $175,000. In Pennsylvania, CVS settled a suit for $450,000 due to expired products.
These stores have significantly improved from last year’s findings, in which reporters for The Princeton Summer Journal found 75 expired products in 12 stores. The initial 2008 investigation found 191 expired products in seven stores.
The following stores had expired products: 7-Eleven, 358 George St., New Brunswick; Colonial Farms, 137 E. State St., Trenton; CVS, 949 Livingston Ave., North Brunswick; Family Dollar, 117 E. State St., Trenton; Rite Aid, 366 George Street, New Brunswick; Tropical Supermarket, 959 Livingston Ave., North Brunswick; Walgreens, 20 Jersey Ave., New Brunswick.