A Canadian woman recently bought a can of lobster pate at a Wal-Mart store. The pate was about a year and half past its best before date, and the woman claimed that she felt ill about four hours after consuming some of the pate. In this era of the nanny state, the story did not end there. The woman contacted the media, triggering a debate about a need for government regulation against selling food past the best before date. In a radio interview the woman with the expired lobster pate complained about the lack of consumer protection, and ended her complaint by saying: “Now I have to analyze everything before buying!”

At the moment, there is no legislation in Canada preventing the sale of food past its best before date and no legal requirement to provide such a date on food packaging.  Manufacturers provide best before dates in order to protect themselves against liability. Apparently, there is no evidence that consuming expired food will make you sick, although nutritionists agree that the taste, texture and the nutritional value of foods diminish over time; therefore the “best before” labeling.

Should there be legislation against selling expired foods? Absolutely not, despite the claims of those who advocate a nanny state. The proper role of the government is to protect individual rights of its citizens against the initiation of physical force and fraud. This protection extends to cases where consumers are sold defective goods, expired food included. If a store has been negligent or made an honest error, such purchases should be simply refunded. If there is evidence of long-term or permanent health effects or injury, the companies are liable to compensate consumers, enforced by the courts. No additional regulations or legislation are needed. It is not in companies’ interest to sell spoiled food or defective products to consumers due to this liability and damage to their reputation.

If the government legislates against selling foods past their best before dates, it violates the rights of the merchants and consumers to trade freely. A store may want to sell expired foods at a discount, and consumers may want to take advantage of such discounts. A rational consumer would assess any purchase, including checking for a best before date or any visible signs of spoilage or damage and then determine whether he wants to make the purchase or not. Government interference with the market will only distort it by creating inefficiencies and unnecessary waste.

Despite the protestations of the lobster pate lady, there is no substitute for our own first-hand assessment of everything on which we are about to spend our hard-earned money. When we fail to do so, expired food or defective goods can be returned for a refund. It is in the interest of stores to prevent the sale of such goods, lest consumers go elsewhere to avoid the hassles of dealing with returns or other negative consequences of defective products. Government interference is not needed—the protection of individual rights is.

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