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Is Your Food At Risk?

MIAMI (CBSMiami) - There's a new reason for you to check your groceries a bit closer the next time you shop.

The head of Florida's Supermarket food safety inspections now worries about forced cut backs on the number of sanitation checks statewide following budget cuts that have left the program with fewer inspectors. Also, some local consumers are complaining about some unwelcome changes at their favorite supermarket shelves.

Coconut Creeks' Darcy Friedman said she's seeing more and more outdated food lately selling around South Florida and explained, "I was horrified. Almost  3 months? I would never in a million years take a chance by eating something that is so outdated."

The out-of-date yogurt that caught her attention wasn't the only old item, "There was other stuff on the shelf that had expired. They had a whole section of it that they were selling, they had marked it down. It was all expired."

Darcy shops at her favorite Cooper City Target near her home in Coconut Creek.

"I'm tired of getting sick by buying food that is handled improperly and this store in particular," said the Broward Mom.

On March 11th, CBS4's Chief Consumer Investigator Al Sunshine went shopping undercover to find out whether Darcy's favorite Target was selling expired food.

CBS4 found a strawberry yogurt on the shelves with a March 5th sell-by date, along with a packaged sliced turkey breast and a vegetable spread dated March 6th.

Darcy worries about expired foods like these that could potentially make someone sick.

"If I'd given it to an elderly person, God only knows what could happen. I would never eat that," said Darcy.

When we contacted Target, spokeswoman Jessica Deede sent us this statement:

"Target is committed to providing our guests with fresh, high quality food and we have processes in place to monitor the freshness of grocery products in our stores. We are looking into this situation and we'll take this opportunity to reiterate our processes.

If a guest happens to find a product that has passed its expiration or best-if-used-by date, we encourage that guest to make one of our store team members aware so we can immediately address the issue. If the guest has already purchased the product, we will gladly provide a full refund."

So how hard is it to find other expired foods selling around South Florida?

We checked more than a dozen supermarkets and discounters to see how well they were rotating their stocks, taking the older products off their shelves.

Also, CBS4 wondered, what about the other Target stores?

After browsing the shelves at the Target located off Bird Road in West Miami Dade their merchandise checked-out fine.

With further investigation at Hialeah's Walmart, a Publix in West Dade and a Winn-Dixie in Doral, the items sell-by dates also checked-out fine.

But after shopping through an Opa-Locka supermarket, we found numerous items on the shelves that were well past their sell-by dates.

One item was a package of powdered infant formula with a "Use-By" date of September, 2012.

So what are Florida Food Safety officials doing to make sure we're buying food products that met state sanitation standards?

Food safety inspectors try to check out Supermarkets three times a year.

During these inspections, they monitor to see how food is handled, stored, and rotated off shelves to make sure customers get fresh, healthy products.

But because of budget cuts the past few years, the Florida Department of Agriculture recently lost more than 10% of its food safety field staff. This decrease resulted in inspections going from three a year, down to just one.

Dr. John Fruin heads up the program out of Tallahassee and warns, "The problem with fewer inspectors is the length of time between inspections has increased because we just don't have manpower to do to meet  the  frequency goals that we have."

So with fewer food safety inspectors on the job...are more Florida consumers complaining about getting sick?

The man in charge of the states' supermarket inspections is worried that fewer inspections could result in more potentially unsafe foods being sold in local supermarkets.

"It means there's an increased potential for people to get sick when you have serious sanitation or refrigeration problems, explained Fruin.

Making the problem even worse?

According to Dr. Fruin, while local food safety budgets like Florida's are being cut, the feds are forced to rely even more on the state health inspections. Dr. Fruin also added, "The FDA is looking to depend more and more on the states to assist them to in the inspection of manufacturing facilities."

That's why some long time Florida Public Health experts are now warning that shoppers need to pay a lot more attention to the food on supermarket shelves and make sure they're not buying expired products.

What could it mean if they don't?

Dr. Fruin warned "Well, illness and, in the worst case, death."

Food borne illness complaints about grocery stores around South Florida have slowly grown the past three years.

But it's still a relatively small number compared to all the food stores doing business down here.

In most cases, selling expired products in Florida is not even a violation under current food safety laws.

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