WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture here last week investigated 33 Winn-Dixie stores in seven states after a television news report said some Winn-Dixie stores in North Carolina were violating state and federal laws on meat "sell-by" labels.
The USDA investigation turned up only a single violation, Carol Blake, a spokeswoman for the USDA's food safety and inspection service, told SN.
A television news report, broadcast on WFMY-TV, Greensboro, N.C., last week, said that six Winn-Dixie stores in the Greensboro area were selling fresh meat products past their "sell-by" dates by covering or removing labels. According to the station, videotapes of the investigation revealed 18 state and six federal violations.
The USDA and Winn-Dixie each launched investigations as a result of the broadcast. Blake said USDA inspectors viewed letters from Winn-Dixie's corporate office to its stores reminding the stores of its policy. "It appears they're putting things in place to correct the problem," Blake said.
Winn-Dixie launched its own investigation as soon as it was informed of the report, Mickey Clerc, a spokesman for Winn-Dixie, told SN. It found changed sell-by dates on some meat products at one of the six stores cited in the report and took "immediate corrective action," said Clerc, who declined to be more specific.
"We also made sure that every associate in every one of our stores knows our freshness policy," he added. "We take this very seriously."
The report producers used hidden cameras to track meat cases in Greensboro-area grocery stores for more than a month beginning in January. The initial investigation covered two stores each from Harris Teeter, Food Lion, Bi-Lo and Winn-Dixie. The station said Winn-Dixie was the only one of the retailers that had altered original sell-by dates. The station later investigated four other area Winn-Dixie stores.
Federal law does not require sell-by dates on products, but those so marked cannot be altered, Blake explained. If found in violation, a store would be issued a warning by the USDA. The department would have to find a store criminally negligent in court in order to assess a fine, Blake said.
State laws on sell-by date labeling differ from state to state, she added.
Winn-Dixie President Al Rowland issued a statement to the station saying the company had investigated the stores mentioned in the report and had taken corrective action. "We will remain vigilant to prevent any further problems from occurring," the statement read. "One instance is too many."
Clerc said Winn-Dixie would not dispute any findings of the station. Salisbury, N.C.-based chain Food Lion engaged in a lengthy battle with ABC's "Prime Time Live" program after that show in 1992 sent two reporters undercover for an expose accusing the supermarket chain of selling spoiled meat. Food Lion denied the allegations and said it lost more than $1 billion in sales and stock value because of the report.
"The only public relations we're doing is making sure the products we sell are fresh, quality merchandise," said Clerc. "We appreciate any report from anyone that indicates there is a problem with our stores so we can correct it."