Consumer Reports Insights: Out-of-date food and drugs can be hazardous

(Alamy)
  Enlarge Photo    
Monday, November 8, 2010; 2:57 PM

In visits to 31 supermarkets in seven states in 2008, Consumer Reports' secret shoppers found 72 food items that were past their sell-by dates. More recently, state attorneys general in Connecticut and New York took legal action against a major pharmacy chain after investigators repeatedly found expired drinks, food and over-the-counter medications on sale. Expiration dates can alert you to danger, but not all foods carry them. While drugs do, getting rid of them isn't always straightforward.

Food and drink

While you can simply toss bad food, the tougher task is identifying what's bad. Here's what to look for:

DO check for product dates. An "expiration" date shows the last date the food should be consumed. A "use by" date indicates the last day the product is likely to be at peak flavor. A "sell by" or "pull" date indicates the last day a product should be sold.

DON'T confuse a product's code - a series of letters, numbers or both that is used to track foods and, if necessary, recall them - with its use-by date.

DO read the dates on your canned foods. High-acid canned foods, such as tomatoes, can last 12 to 18 months. Low-acid foods (fish, meat and most vegetables) can last two to five years.

DON'T open a can that's bulging, dented or rusting, because it can harbor harmful bacteria.

DO throw away perishable food that has been left unrefrigerated for more than two hours. Eat refrigerated, cooked leftovers within four days.

DON'T taste food to see if it's bad.

DO throw out items when in doubt.

Medications

About a third of the 4 billion prescriptions filled each year go unused, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association. And many of those drugs are not properly disposed of. That helps explain why traces of antibiotics, mood stabilizers, hormones and other drugs have been found in drinking water. If you have unused or expired meds:

DON'T flush them down the toilet or wash them down the drain unless the label or product information tells you this is safe.

DO ask your local pharmacist if he or she participates in the drug take-back program developed by the NCPA, which sends leftover drugs to medical waste disposal facilities. To find a participating pharmacy near your home, go to www.disposemymeds.org. Or check with your local or state waste management authority about other options.

DON'T throw drugs directly into the trash. If a medication collection program isn't available, mix the drugs with cat litter, coffee grounds or other undesirable substances. That should deter people from rifling through your trash to find them. Put the mixture in a container with a lid or a bag that can be sealed. Remove all personal information, then put the sealed container in the trash.

(c) Copyright 2010. Consumers Union of United States Inc.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company