Editor’s note: Today’s column is devoted to fruit sold in grocery stores, with a series of questions we forwarded to Ashley Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

QUESTION: I buy a lot of fruit, freshly prepared, cut up and cleaned, at a local grocery store. Lately, I’ve noticed frequently that the fruit looks a little old. I look at the date on the package and notice two labels, one with a four-day-old date and one with a two-day-old date. Is it okay for a grocery store to change the date so it says it is fresher than it actually is?

ANSWER: “Produce managers will sometimes extend dates if they see product lasting past the original date. They extend the date to try to sell their product because most customers believe that these dates mean the product is unsafe, which is not correct. The date is strictly a quality date. Those dates are strictly for the manufacturers: they are for the stores themselves and somewhat a courtesy to the consumer. It does not reflect the safety of the food product in those containers.”

QUESTION: It seems if it does not sell by the first date, they just put a new label on it and leave it out for customers to buy for a few more days. This looks a bit deceptive and misleading, not to mention unsafe for customers. Is this a common practice at grocery stores?

ANSWER: “This is common practice in produce sections and it is legal. Since the majority of produce allow for visible and physical observation, customers can make their own determination as to the freshness of the product. Most businesses do not want customers eating their products when the taste is tainted, even though it is usually safe to do so, because customers won’t purchase them again.”

QUESTION: Is this approved by the health department?

ANSWER: “These types of dates are not required by DHH. But dates on meats, dairy products and other foods do serve a purpose and can be useful for recalls. The only products which are mandated to be removed from the market when the date expires are baby food and infant formula. Even in these cases, it’s not because they’re unsafe but that they no longer meet the nutritional requirements specified on their labels, which is misleading.”

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