'DATELINE' PROMPTS LOOK AT SELL-BY POLICIES

NEW YORK -- Supermarkets said the "Dateline NBC" undercover investigation that aired last week served as a catalyst for enforcing their policies about changing the "sell-by" dates on their packages of fresh meat and seafood, but it was not the public-relations disaster some had feared.Using hidden cameras and a metal stamp to secretly imprint dates in Styrofoam packages, Dateline found that all seven

NEW YORK -- Supermarkets said the "Dateline NBC" undercover investigation that aired last week served as a catalyst for enforcing their policies about changing the "sell-by" dates on their packages of fresh meat and seafood, but it was not the public-relations disaster some had feared.

Using hidden cameras and a metal stamp to secretly imprint dates in Styrofoam packages, Dateline found that all seven chains it investigated -- Winn-Dixie Stores, Albertson's, Publix, Kroger Co., Pathmark Stores, Safeway and A&P -- appeared to have changed the dates on their meat products to keep them out on the shelves for longer periods of time.

But despite concern in the industry that the show -- which was produced by the same woman who produced a scathing, hidden-camera report on Food Lion's meat operations a decade ago -- might expose consumer safety hazards, it instead primarily demonstrated that chains are lax in enforcing their policies against changing the sell-by dates. The program did little to demonstrate that such practices were dangerous to consumers, although it did test some samples of re-dated fish and ham that it said had extraordinarily high levels of bacteria.

Chuck Cerankosky, analyst, McDonald Investments, Cleveland, said he thought the program was not compelling enough to instill widespread consumer reaction.

"I'd much rather watch 'Dukes of Hazard' reruns," he said. "It was a cause for concern for the chains that were involved in the program, but it doesn't look like any overwhelming customer-relations problem. It's an operational problem."

The program found 201 instances of fresh meat and seafood that appeared to have been re-dated at 28 stores throughout the country at all seven chains investigated during a five-month period. Much of the first half of the program focused on Winn-Dixie, where re-dated products were found at six of the seven stores investigated, but Albertson's, Kroger, Safeway, A&P and Pathmark all appeared to be re-dating their products extensively. Publix, where only eight products were found to be re-dated at four of the eight stores checked, fared the best in the investigation.

Several of the chains investigated said they immediately launched investigations and worked to communicate their policies to store-level employees.

"We made this an all-hands review," said Richard De Santa, vice president, corporate affairs, A&P, Montvale, N.J. "If in fact what they came up with was not contrived and was in fact accurate, these constitute clear violations of our policy, which we do not tolerate."

He said an investigation into the specific allegations against A&P, where 33 packages of re-dated meat were found in all three stores investigated, was ongoing.

In addition to reminding all employees about the company's zero-tolerance policy concerning re-dating, A&P also sent signs to all its U.S. stores that explain the company's policy and seek to assure customers about A&P's commitment to quality and freshness.

At Winn-Dixie, Jacksonville, Fla., spokesman Mickey Clerc said the company asked all employees to read and sign a copy of the policy, which prohibits changing the sell-by dates on any products.

Winn-Dixie has investigated the incidents of re-dating that were uncovered by Dateline and has "taken the appropriate action," he said, although he declined to reveal specifics.

Pathmark, Carteret, N.J., was the only chain that did not tell Dateline that it had a policy against re-dating products. Pathmark said its policy was to inspect meat products that had passed their sell-by dates and re-date them if they still appeared fresh.

"We are re-examining our policy, and we believe we are taking some steps to simplify the policy and clarify it for our associates," said Rich Savner, spokesman, Pathmark Stores.

Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, which Dateline alleged had re-dated 48 products in all six stores that were investigated, said in a prepared statement that it has "taken aggressive and appropriate steps to make sure that all of the company's stores are in compliance with company policies that prohibit the re-dating of meat products."

Kroger, Cincinnati, and Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., could not be reached for comment. Publix, Lakeland, Fla., declined to comment.

Some of the supermarket companies that were not investigated said the Dateline show prompted them to take some action in their own stores.

At Penn Traffic, the Syracuse, N.Y.-based operator of Big Bear, Bi-Lo and other chains, spokesman Marc Jampole said the company distributed signs to all of its stores explaining that it is company policy "not to change the date on any product or sell any product past its expiration date."

At Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., the company said it prepared its employees for the possibility of customer inquiries.

"We told our store managers that it was going to be airing, and we were ready to respond to customers if they had any questions," said Ruth Kinzey, spokeswoman, Food Lion.

Kinzey said she heard from Food Marketing Institute in late March or early April that the program would air and that it was being produced by Lynne Dale, who produced the earlier Food Lion investigation for ABC.

She said the day after last week's program aired, the chain received one phone call on its toll-free customer hotline from a customer who said they had seen the Dateline piece and asked about the company's re-dating policy.

Even the chains that were investigated by Dateline said they received few calls from consumers concerning the program.