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Can I Sue a Grocery Store for Selling Expired Food?

It can be really frustrating when you bring home your groceries only to realize that your canned corn is past the expiration date. Or worse yet, your milk or orange juice. But if you got sick from spoiled food, you may have asked the question, can I sue a grocery store for selling expired food?

Yes, you can sue a grocery store for selling expired food. But, unless it led to injury or illness & significant expenses, or losses, it may be hard to find a lawyer willing to take the case. You can file yourself in small claims court, but in most cases, you’ll be better off just returning the item & getting a refund.

But that’s just a quick answer. In this article, we’re diving deep into grocery stores, expired foods, and the rights shoppers have.

So what can you do about a grocery store that consistently sells expired food?

Can you sue them? What happens when a store sells out-of-date food? Do they get penalized somehow?

We’ll answer all of these questions and more.

Just keep reading!

Can you sue Walmart for selling expired food?

It depends.

If you bought food from Walmart and it somehow injured you because it was expired, you can sue. If you chipped a tooth, for example, on old hard candy, then you can sue.

Or if you drank milk that was out of date and it made you sick, then you can sue.

Unfortunately, you can sue people for just about anything. But the question shouldn’t be whether you can sue. It should be whether you can find a lawyer that will assist you.

Lawsuits are very expensive, and if you don’t have enough in damages to cover the costs, it won’t be worth it for an attorney to take your case.

So if you chipped a tooth and have a $200 dentist bill, an attorney likely won’t take your case. But if you ate a can of old corn and spent several days in the hospital, racking up tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills, they are more likely to take the case.

That’s because the damages, meaning the monetary expenses you are on the hook for, are higher.

However, if you chipped a tooth on candy that was out of date, and you want to file a claim, you can. You can either do it through small claims court, or you can reach out to Walmart directly.

Every state’s small claims courts run differently, so if you choose to go that route, you should call your local court to find out the process.

But if you want to contact Walmart directly to notify them of the incident, save your receipt, remaining product, and the packaging.

You should also see a dentist, and keep any bills related to the incident. It may even be helpful to have your dentist write up something about the extent of the damage and whether you’ll need additional care.

Walmart may settle with you if you have the needed proof to support your claim, but it probably wouldn’t be feasible to litigate your case. (source)

What happens if a supermarket sells out of date food?

Unfortunately, most out food date food ends up in the landfill.

Food that is either close to the expiration date or no longer at peak quality is unfit to sell. This is regardless of whether it has met its expiration date.

Fresh vegetables and meat that is past its prime, but not yet expired may be cooked up for the in-store deli and salad counters before they spoil. And while some of it ends up in the landfill, expired food may be given to local food banks, sold to salvage stores, or given to employees.

If you do happen to purchase something that is out of date, like milk, you can simply return it to the store. Most stores will give you a refund.

But for the most part, stores can sell out of date food without consequence. Especially canned goods.

According to the FDA, there is no uniform dating system. In fact, manufacturers aren’t even required to put quality-based labels on food, unless it’s baby formula. So those dates put on canned food is arbitrary. They are there just to make the consumer feel good about what they are purchasing.

And according to the USDA, low acid foods are good for 2 to 5 years. If cans are in good condition, with no obvious signs of damage, they are safe to eat indefinitely.

To learn more about what happens to unsold food in supermarkets, read this recent article. What really surprised me was the percentage of food that could be eaten or given to homeless shelters and food banks get thrown away.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

How much can a shop be fined for selling out of date food?

I couldn’t find any exact figures on this, but I did find where 21 stores in Port Chester, NY, and White Plains, NY were fined a total of $59,600 for selling outdated food in 2009. (source)

So, in the grand scheme of things, stores won’t be fined very much for selling outdated food.

Because expiration dates are not federally mandated, each state will likely have its own rules and regulations regarding the sale of outdated food. Which is probably why I couldn’t find much about it.

Also, know that I could walk into ANY grocery store right now and find outdated products if I looked hard enough.

All grocery stores have tens of thousands of products. And most have fewer than 300 employees (some have a LOT fewer). It’s just not possible to catch every can, bag, box, and carton. And even the best store manager has to trust their employees to be checking dates when they stock, rotate products and face the store.

By now, you know that canned foods are good indefinitely. Milk and fresh meat clearly don’t last as long. But what about products in other sections of the grocery store?

What are the other sections of a grocery store anyway?

Read this recent article to learn more about the different sections of grocery stores. While all stores have things that make them unique, the surprising truth is that almost every store follows the same core systems and layouts.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Is it a legal offense to sell out of date food?

It depends. Also remember that in most cases, these are “best by” dates. They are not usually dates telling you when something is bad or inedible.

No. Most dates on food are there to tell you when the maximum flavor and freshness will start to diminish.

Federal law doesn’t require manufactures to put an expiration date on products. If there is no requirement to do something, then you can’t be penalized for it legally.

But baby formula must have an expiration date on it. And in California, all baby food must also have an expiration date.

Even if it is illegal to sell out of date food, you need to take some personal responsibility, too.

Check the dates on products before you purchase them. And then check the dates again before you consume it, especially if you’re feeding it to your baby.

If you see expired food on the shelf, particularly baby formula or baby food, notify the store manager, so they can handle it.

If you inadvertently purchase something that has expired, take it back to the store for a refund or exchange.

What if I bought expired food?

Simply put, in most cases, – eat it.

If it’s milk or yogurt, you may not want to eat it. If that’s the case, just return it to the store or throw it away.

Same thing for meat or seafood. And always remember – when in doubt, throw it out. If you don’t want to throw it out, and you still have the receipt, return it to the store.

For canned goods, as long as the cans aren’t damaged in any way – there’s no swelling, rust, or dents – the food inside is still good to eat.

Expiration dates are arbitrary. There is no federal regulation regarding the dating of canned goods. That’s why you see so many different labels. In fact, unless it’s baby formula, there is no federal law stating that canned goods even need expiration dates.

If you bought it from Whole Foods, you can rest assured that they’ll refund your money. Whole Foods really cares about the products they sell and the customers they serve.

I couldn’t tell you how many times customers had the gall to come into my store and want a refund for something they threw away AND no longer had the receipt for. And more often than not, we gave them that refund.

That is just one of the reasons why Whole Foods Market is so popular.

To learn more about what makes Whole Foods so popular, check out this recent article. While I don’t work for them now, I did work there for over 20 years. So I know a thing or two about them.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Final thoughts

Unless you get exceptionally sick from eating expired food, you likely won’t be able to find a lawyer to help you file a lawsuit.

Canned goods are shelf-stable for years and years. And if you accidentally purchase expired milk, cheese, or other fresh goods, you can take it back to the store for a refund.

It’s not necessarily illegal to sell expired items. But each state will approach it differently when it comes to fining stores for selling outdated items.

Will you throw away that can of corn that is a year out of date, or will you eat it?

I know what I would do!

Photos which requires attribution:

bad salsa by flicktoast is licensed under CC2.0

Jeff Campbell