Jim Parsons of Channel 4 Action News (PA) reports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Team 4 that agents are in the midst of an investigation into the possible distribution of spoiled meat in western Pennsylvania.
That investigation has been going on for at least eight months, and we don’t know how it will end.
But in the meantime, what are the lessons for consumers? Lesson No. 1: Don’t rely solely on expiration dates to tell you whether the meat product you’re buying is spoiled.
Team 4 has learned that USDA agents showed up at a Pittsburgh food distribution company last fall and seized 40,000 pounds of pre-packaged meat products.
American Dispatch owner Tom Goslin would not speak on camera, but he told Team 4 federal agents gave him a choice — dump the seized meat at a landfill or shut down his business.
Photographs inside American Dispatch’s cooler at that time show pallet after pallet of meat products with expired “use by” dates. Some of those dates went back more than two years.
The manufacturers themselves didn’t want the stuff sold to the public after April 20, 2003; February 19, 2003; and how about December 11, 2002?
“I just couldn’t believe it. I mean, that product should have been disposed of years ago. I mean, why that product would be sitting around in a cooler environment for two years is beyond me,” said former American Dispatch manager Ron Labick.
Labick went to the USDA to file a complaint when he found out that his company was shipping 100 cases of thawed 2-year-old hot dogs to Groceries Plus More, a low-price salvage food market in McDonald, Washington County, where you can also get a cooked hot dog on a bun for a quarter.
“Basically, it was a public safety violation and I had to put a stop to this to keep harm from happening to the public,” Labick said.
“We purchased it through a company. And the USDA came in and checked it and they got it,” said Groceries Plus More owner Jeff Weiner.
Weiner said USDA agents showed up at his store the morning after the hot dogs arrived from American Dispatch, before he had a chance to open the cases and notice that they were old.
Team 4 decided to go grocery shopping with a hidden camera. We went to half a dozen stores in three counties to see whether we would find pre-packaged meat with expired “use by-sell by” dates.
Team 4 shot video in late March and a package of sliced beef for sale had a “use by” date from October of last year. This unfrozen beef brisket that was dripping blood out of the package was supposed to be used by March of 2005 — a full year ago.
But here’s the thing: there’s no law against selling meat past its use by/sell by date. It’s nothing more than a recommendation for consumers.
“There’s really no regulatory power behind use by ‘sell by’ dates. It’s just a notification to the consumer that the freshness of that product has expired,” said Bobby McLean of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
So, if you can’t count on the dates to tell you whether meat is spoiled, what’s a consumer to do?
Use the same tools that food safety inspectors employ — the same ones your mother taught you.
“With meat products, if there is some type of slimy appearance to it, if it actually has darkened in color and if there is some type of off odor that’s noticed by the consumer,” McLean said.
Team 4’s shopping trip produced plenty of examples of pre-packaged meat gone bad. Some had expired “use by” dates, others were supposed to still be fresh — but they weren’t.
“This ground beef does not pass the smell test. This is not something I would serve to my family. It definitely has a rancid odor to it. No question about it,” Parsons said.
Team 4 purchased slabs of bacon at the same store on the same day. And they had the same “use by” date.
One slab had a pinkish color, but the other had turned a grayish brown.
“Let’s give it the old smell test. Yeah, that’s not bacon you would want to eat,” Parsons said.
Kielbasi at the same store had an expired “use by” date and there was a milky liquid at the bottom.
“That’s also a sign of bacteria growth inside the product. And that is a sign that you should be aware of,” McLean said.
A package of turkey bacon’s “use by” date had not expired, but a careful shopper would notice that the package on top had a darker color to the meat than the one below.
One woman noticed it when Team 4 stopped her outside the store. When asked if she would buy the darker colored turkey bacon, shopper Jean Forry said, “No, I wouldn’t because it looks off color. No, no I don’t like the way it smells either.”
Combine all of those bits of information and you’ll avoid buying spoiled pre-packaged meat.
Look for signs of a darker than normal color.
If there’s white slime inside the package, that’s bacteria growing.
Check for a puncture in the package. You”ll know it has one if you can smell the meat.
Make sure the “use by” date hasn’t expired.
“Just be aware of the product that you are choosing and be very selective,” McLean said.
Another common sense tip: Cook all meat thoroughly.
You may have noticed that Team 4 didn’t reveal the names of any retailers or manufacturers in this story, except for the two businesses that were raided by the USDA. That’s because, again, it’s not against the law to sell old meat.
So, it’s up to you to pay special attention at the meat counter.