Good Old Samoas?

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Know that old Girl Scout cookie joke? If peanut butter cookies are made from peanut butter, what are Girl Scout cookies made from?

Pretty dumb, I know. Besides, check that box of Girl Scout cookies in your cupboard or freezer -- you won't find "Girl Scout" on the food label, as federal regulations would require if such a thing were true .

Nor will you find an expiration or sell-by date the way you do on lots of other food products -- a fact reader Jim Koricki noticed recently when inspecting his Girl Scout cookie purchases.

"Should an organization like the Girl Scouts put that info on their packages? Maybe the law requires it?" wonders Koricki, something of an amateur consumer sleuth.

"I am a devoted expiration-date checker," he confesses. "When I find them [past their date] I go and get a manager or assistant manager and 99 percent of the time they take them off the shelves immediately. They are pretty good about that."

But no expiration or sell-by dates on those Thin Mints, Lemon Coolers, Samoas and Do-Si-Dos pose a problem for Koricki. "It is hard to come out of a business where [the Scouts] are outside and not buy from them," says the Rockville resident. "I figure Girl Scouts is a real good outfit. . . . But when I find products that do not have expiration dates, I do not buy them."

Driver's licenses have expiration dates, credit cards have expiration dates, prescription drugs have expiration dates. Hey, even sour cream has an expiration date! (That's an old joke, too.) But the only food items required by federal law to have expiration dates are infant formula and some baby foods -- which is because the feds are primarily concerned with potential hazards and, in the case of baby formula, nutritional and quality standards. Same for the various state laws that require dairy products and eggs to label expiration dates. Otherwise, products with expiration dates, sell-by dates, use-by dates and best-used-by dates are marked voluntarily by their manufacturers to guide consumers and retailers.

"Girl Scout cookies are not a potentially hazardous food from a food-safety perspective" so they don't require an expiration date, says food-safety expert Paul VanLandingham, professor of hospitality at Johnson & Wales University's Center for Food and Beverage Management in Providence, R.I.

About the worst thing that can happen to a Girl Scout cookie that's past its prime is that it gets stale. So in terms of consumer-protection laws, that's just how the cookie crumbles. "Stale means they are not going to be appetizing -- but not harmful," VanLandingham says.

Marion Swan, who directs communications and marketing for the Girl Scouts of the USA, says baked goods traditionally have a sell-by date, not an expiration date, to make sure the inventory moves off the store shelves quickly. "But Girl Scout cookies are sold and delivered within a very short and specific time frame, so there is no need," she says, adding that "Girl Scout cookies are best consumed within about six months of purchase."

Another reason the cookie boxes aren't dated is that the packaging is made in advance due to the design (different smiling Girl Scouts for each cookie type) and the boxes sometimes are used over two years. "But the cookies are produced fresh every year," says Laura Bassett, product sales specialist at the Girl Scouts Council of the Nation's Capital, which expects to sell more than 4 million boxes this year again. The cookie binge annually sells more than 200 million boxes nationwide and continues in the Washington Metropolitan area through April 1 when the last Girl Scout cookie booth closes shop.

What about cookies that don't sell? "If we do have leftover boxes, we donate them to a variety of organizations . . . from the Capital Food Bank to the USO for care packages," Bassett says. "We clear out that inventory.

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