DATED THINKING

Consumer pressure and increased media attention have heightened awareness of infant-formula expiration dates.During a random check at five Southeast chains this month, SN found expired liquid formula at one store. The formula, discovered on March 2, expired in November 1996. It was found on the front part of the shelf. Also, several other cans had a March 11, 1997, expiration date. When SN alerted

Consumer pressure and increased media attention have heightened awareness of infant-formula expiration dates.

During a random check at five Southeast chains this month, SN found expired liquid formula at one store. The formula, discovered on March 2, expired in November 1996. It was found on the front part of the shelf. Also, several other cans had a March 11, 1997, expiration date. When SN alerted the store manager and asked how often the unit checks its infant formula expiration dates, he said they're checked regularly. The manager then notified another store employee about the situation.

Though most chains SN spoke with said they remove formula from their shelves within a month of expiration, on several occasions SN has seen formula with expiration dates several days away.

Retailers told SN that checks are made each time stockers replace formula, which, depending on the store's volume, can be as often as a daily basis.

At Randalls Food Markets, Houston, rotations and checks are conducted an average of three times a week, said Annabel Joe, the chain's nonfood category manager.

In an effort to ensure that no expired formula reaches shoppers' hands, Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, relies on vendor sales representatives to check product. Additional reviews are performed every two weeks by store personnel, according to Rich Iott, president and chief executive officer at the chain.

Multiple store-level checks and rotations are used by other grocers as well. Danny Langley, diaper buyer and pricing coordinator at Byrd Food Stores, Burlington, N.C., said his employees are supposed to run the first check each week.

"Managers check behind the stockers at least once a week," he added.

Baby formula is distributed on a quarterly calendar by Coborn's, St. Cloud, Minn. Each quarter, stores receive a list of items to check -- one of which is infant formula, said Andy Knoblauch, category manager and merchandiser. The calendar is designed to remind store management to check for potential out-of-dates, he added.

Checking product daily is the first step in preventing out-of-date item sales at Handy Andy Supermarkets, said Lupe Anguiano, grocery buyer and merchandiser at the San Antonio-based chain.

Field supervisors are armed with a list of merchandise with expiration dates to check as they make their rounds, he added.

Rotations happen when stockers fill in with new items. Spokane, Wash.-based Rosauers Supermarkets, like other grocers, places the older merchandise on top of the newer to ensure that it moves first.

"They check the date to make sure it's fine, and then they stock the newer code date underneath. The rotation of the dates keeps the product fresh," said Lee Mullen, district manager at the company.

The number of checks and the frequency of rotation is left to the discretion of the individual retailer, but it's clear that none of them wants to be caught with expired formula on their shelves.

Copps Corp., Stevens Point, Wis., conducts its store-level rotations much like the other retailers polled by SN, but it takes it another step.

The company warehouses infant formula, and therefore, runs checks in its warehouse as well. With the help of technology, the system is becoming easier to use and more efficient, said Wade Bertram, category manager at the chain.

The system has yet to be fully implemented. Bertram explained that when merchandise is received at the loading dock, the receiver scans the product and automatically inputs its expiration date.

When an employee wants to check dated items, the computer prints out anything that doesn't fall within the range of dates the company has set in the system.

"If we have stock on hand that's getting close-dated, it's brought to the attention of the buyer. We don't ship it if it's getting close-dated," Bertram added.

Close-dated is the term grocers use when a product is approaching its "sell-by" date.

For Randalls, close-dated formula is anything that's within a month of expiring. "We encourage the stockers to pull the product a month before the expiration date," Joe said.

Byrd Food Stores waits until the week the product will become out of date to pull it.

Presently, there is no industrywide time frame for when a product needs to be off the shelf, prior to its expiration. Robert Gelardi, president and executive director of the The Infant Formula Council, Atlanta, advised retailers to check their shelves on a monthly basis.

"The expiration dating is on a monthly basis, so if they check it sometime during each month for removal prior to the beginning of the following month, all their product will stay in date," he said.

He added that if a retailer inadvertently sells outdated infant formula to a customer, there are no serious health risks for the child. The effectiveness of the product is minimized, because vitamins begin to deteriorate after a certain period of time, Gelardi said.

"After the shelf life, the manufacturer does not guarantee that they will be at the minimum levels required," he added.

Seaway's Iott said they really don't have a problem with product being close-dated. "At this time, we are receiving product dated 1998 and 1999. With these kind of dates, we should not have a problem, but we still check to ensure the best dates possible," he said.

Vendors and other distributors give retailers over a year to sell merchandise. Randalls' Joe said the product her stores sell is manufactured with 18-month dating, so they have at least a year to sell it, if not longer.

If a customer finds outdated infant formula on the shelf or purchases it close to its expiration date, retailers told SN they would replace it.

Seaway's Iott explained their process as replacing the product at no extra cost, contacting the corporate office about the problem, alerting the warehouse manager to check warehoused product and notifying other stores to check their shelves.

If any additional out-of-date products are found, they would be sent to Seaway's reclamation center. Credit would then be collected from the supplier.