Potentially harmful expired baby formula has been found on some Vancouver-area supermarket shelves in violation of federal food safety guidelines, a CBC News investigation has found.

The sale of past-dated formula would carry hefty penalties in several U.S. states, but in Canada, federal and provincial regulations lack clout.

CBC News took hidden cameras into about a half dozen supermarkets and discount retailers across Metro Vancouver and found expired infant formula in two of them.

President's Choice Soy Infant Formula, a liquid, was found for sale more than two months past its expiry date at a Real Canadian Superstore in North Vancouver.

A PriceSmart store in East Vancouver was selling Isomil Infant Formula powder that was seven months out of date.

According to guidelines set out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada, these products should not have been offered for sale to the public.

Differs from 'best before'

Unlike best-before dates, expiry dates apply to food that can't be compromised. Infant formula is often the sole source of nutrition for babies. The CFIA says once that date is passed, the food should be discarded, not sold.

"Best before" means a product may be safely eaten after the specified date, although nutrition may be compromised.

The supermarket chains where the expired baby formula was found say they are taking the matter very seriously and reinforcing procedures now in place so this doesn't happen again.

Still, Vancouver mother Amanda Lee wants to know why expired baby food products were left on store shelves.

Lee’s four-month-old son, Nathaniel, recently became dehydrated following an infection and now needs to have infant formula.

“If you have somebody stocking it, first of all, it’s right in front of their faces and they're putting it onto the shelves. Why can't they take two seconds out of their lives to actually just peer at it,” Lee said. “Tell your managers or something. Honestly, there's no excuse for it, and yes it does anger me.”

Woodstock, Ont., mother Melodie White claims her son became seriously ill in 2011 after eating baby food nine months out of date. She settled out of court with Zellers, where she bought the food.

"He was vomiting, he had chills, he had fever, he had diarrhea,” White said. “We're talking full-blown food-borne illness here.”

U.S. penalties

Pediatrician-turned-politician Dr. Richard Pan is behind a new California law making it illegal for retailers to sell expired baby foods and formulas.

"This should not be 'buyer beware.' This should be something people should be able to count on," said Pan, a member of the California State Assembly. The law he authored came into effect Jan. 1.

The state of New Jersey fined K-Mart $300,000 for selling expired infant formula and baby food, while similar legal actions in Pennsylvania and New York also resulted in fines against retailers ranging from $250,000 to $2 million.

In Canada, federal guidelines contain no listed penalties. Checks of supermarkets in B.C. are often left to local health inspectors, who can be far busier examining restaurants and meat counters than store shelves.

Claudia Kurzac, manager of health protection with the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, told CBC News that all her inspectors can do is tell stores to remove expired products if they are found.

“We don't have any provincial legislation that governs expiry dates,” Kurzac said.

Lee said that’s not good enough.

“Our government should be stepping up ... and banning everything. And if [the stores] do sell it, they should be definitely getting fined for it,” Lee said.

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