I’m a HUGE advocate of shopping in independent pet supply stores. They are generally run by people who really care and are knowledgeable about dogs (and other small pets). They tend to carry better-quality foods, treats, toys, training products, and just about everything else than the chain pet supply stores do. (But don’t get me wrong: The giant pet supply chains are leagues better at identifying and carrying better-quality products than chain supermarkets and big box stores. I can’t think of a single product I’d buy in the pet supply aisle at a Walmart, for example.)
But there is a catch: At some of the small independent stores, it’s maybe a bit more important that you check the expiration date of any food or treat that you buy! Well-managed stores have systems in place to make sure that products that are close to or past their “best by” dates are pulled from the shelves, so that customers don’t bring home products whose fats are oxidized – gone some degree of rancid, which makes them exude a strong odor and renders them unpalatable to all but the most undiscriminating eaters. Rancid foods and treats can also upset canine tummies and cause what some vets call “bottom of the bag syndrome” – a temporary case of diarrhea and/or vomiting.
The best stores, like the San Francisco Bay area-based chain Pet Food Express, have programs in place to donate food and treats that are getting close to their best-by dates to rescues and shelters. See “What a Waste,” WDJ November 2012.
Keep in mind that naturally preserved foods (those preserved with mixed tocopherols, a.k.a., vitamin E) have shorter shelf lives than those that are preserved with artificial preservatives such as BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin. (We avoid foods that are artificially preserved, but it is undoubtedly better to feed artificially preserved foods that are not rancid than to feed naturally preserved, rancid foods.) If you buy foods that contain natural preservatives, it’s even more important to check the “best by” date.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for inventory control in any store to fail, and for products to linger on the shelves well past their “best by” dates. I recently had a bag of food in my cart and was halfway to the cash register before I remembered to check the date on the bag – and was I glad I did! It was six months past its “best by” date!
But I was so excited to see one of my favorite training treats (Stella and Chewy’s freeze dried “Meal Mixers”) in an independent store in a town about 60 miles from my home (I was visiting my sister-in-law and niece), that I failed to check the date … and when I opened the bag so I could load up my bait bag an hour before Woody’s most recent puppy kindergarten class, I was super disappointed to see that the normally flaky, puffy “nuggets” (easily smooshed into two or three treats in the hand, making them easy to use for reinforcing several behaviors, and super healthy) were hardened – like popcorn that had been left out for weeks. I checked the date on the bag, and d’oh! They passed their “best by” date months and months ago – and probably should have been sold months and months before that!
The worst part is that because I was shopping so far from home, I can’t immediately take them back for an exchange! And at $20 a bag, it’s a costly mistake. I’ll get back there in the next couple of weeks, and bring my receipt, but it’s not quite as compelling to a store manager to bring something back that you bought weeks ago versus just a couple days ago. How can she know that I didn’t buy some newer treats from her, and am trying to get a credit for some old treats I’ve had around for months? And honestly, I was more bummed about having to scramble for treats before class than I am about having to go back to that store – I still really like that store! I just will look at the labels more carefully.