It's not cheap - usually $20-$30 per container. It's also one of the few foods that the Food and Drug Administration requires have a "use by" date on the packaging.
Licensed dietician Patricia Becker explained that while it's very unlikely feeding a baby formula that's past its use-by date would cause any immediate health problems, babies may not get all the necessary nutrients.
"The manufacturer can't guarantee that it's got all of the protein, fats carbohydrates, vitamins, mineral content. They can't guarantee that. And, in an infant, who's growing very quickly, that might be a problem," she said.
But an undercover ABC11 I-Team investigation found it's easy to find outdated formula on store shelves.
Our first stop earlier this month was a Harris Teeter on Creedmoor Rd. in Raleigh where we found product for sale past its use-by date. It included eight individual serving size bottles (Use By: November 3rd, 2012) of Gerber Soy Instant Formula and two cases of four (Use By: October 5th, 2012) of Gerber Soy Instant Formula.
We alerted a manager who thanked us and said he'd fix the problem. When we went back a few days later, the product was no longer for sale.
We also found formula for sale past its use-by date at a Durham Walmart on New Hope Commons Dr. It included seven cans (Use By: November 1st, 2012) of Enfamil formula.
At a Buy Buy Baby store next door, we found one can (Use By: October 1st, 2012) of Enfamil formula.
It was the same at a Durham Target where we found one bottle (Use By: May 1st, 2012) of Similac Organic formula.
At a Toys R' Us/Babies R' Us on Crossroads Blvd. in Cary, we found seven boxes (Use By: December 1st, 2012) of Enfamil formula and five boxes (Use By: October 1st, 2012) of Enfagrow formula in a visit January 11.
We decided to buy some to see if a clerk would notice the date on the packaging, but nothing was said. We went back later to return it and pointed out the problem to a clerk.
On January 18, we went back and found three boxes (Use By: October 1st, 2012) of Enfagrow formula still on the store shelves.
Licensed Dietician Patricia Becker said while it's very unlikely that feeding a baby formula past it's use-by date would cause any immediate health concerns, the problem may mean babies don't get necessary nutrients when they need them the most.
"It is extremely crucial. Because you really get a window, especially with brain development, by age of 2 you're done. The window's closed. So if you miss that opportunity to give them those fats and vitamins and minerals and proteins, you've missed an opportunity." She said.
Becker said she advises parents to check those use-by dates and not use any formula that's past date or discounted.
"People should dispose of it. Because it's, kind of, a fragile population and that's why it's mandated. Because we want to ensure that, you know, babies are getting all of the nutrients that they need,' said Becker.
State Department of Agriculture inspectors do check stores, and if they find old product, they make stores throw it out. If it happens repeatedly, it can lead to fines. The state of California recently made it illegal to sell formula past its sell-by date.
As for the stores we checked on, they all thanked us for bringing this to their attention and said they'd fix it. Some even said they'd be retraining employees in the wake of our investigation.
Walmart told us what we found simply should not have happened and it has procedures in place to keep it from happening and it takes it very seriously.
Harris Teeter gave us this statement:
Harris Teeter is always committed to offering the best quality products in its stores, and this includes stocking only those products with the correct "use-by" dates and removing products from the store that may have reached their "sell-by" date. We recognize our responsibility in making sure that our associates are both thorough and consistent when rotating products on our shelves and looking for products that should be removed from the store. We strive for 100 percent accuracy in that regard. We regret if human error results in an out-of-date product remaining on the store shelf, and we appreciate when our customers take time to bring the problem to our attention. In that way, Harris Teeter can immediately correct the error and our management team will always immediately review with its associates the importance of this particular responsibility.
Here's what Buy Buy Baby had to say:
Thank you for bringing this to our attention. The health and safety of our customers and their children are a priority. Buy Buy Baby apologizes that one unit was overlooked, and promptly after receiving your inquiry we instructed our Durham store to review their store to ensure that there are no other expired units. The policy of Buy Buy Baby is to have no expired goods for sale in our stores. Buy Buy Baby has a procedure in place to effect this policy, and removes formula from the stores several weeks prior to its expiration date. Our associates are regularly trained about the procedure.
Toy R' Us said:
We maintain the highest safety and quality standards for the products on our store shelves, and have strict protocols for inspecting perishable items on a regular basis. Our store employees have been retrained on this issue to ensure this does not happen again.
And Target said:
Target is committed to providing our guests with fresh, quality food. We have processes in place to monitor the freshness of grocery products in our stores. We are looking into this situation, but we'll take this opportunity to reinforce with our teams the importance of fully executing those processes - not only in North Carolina Target stores, but in all of our stores.
If a guest happens to find a product that has passed its expiration or best-if-used-by date, we'd 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 refund it for a full refund.