WMBF News meat investigation could lead to change in law

By Matthew Nordin - bio | email

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A state lawmaker says a WMBF News investigation into stores re-selling meat customers have brought back could lead to a change in South Carolina law.

Our undercover crew went up and down the Grand Strand taking back meat we had bought about an hour earlier. We were trying to see how supermarket employees would react when we returned it.

"He just bought the wrong thing," one store clerk told another.

Half of them put the package back on the shelf as a WMBF News undercover cameraman recorded the whole thing.

All of the stores told us their employees were violating company policy by trying to re-sell the meat and promised to try to keep it from happening again. That's when our colleagues at WIS-TV, our sister station in Columbia, picked-up the investigation. They randomly chose 16 grocery stores. Half the time, employees threw-out the meat right in front of their undercover camera.

"You have to throw it away?" a WIS reporter asked.

"Any meat returned we have to throw away," a clerk responded.

But at three Food Lions the hidden camera caught store employees putting the returned meat back on the shelf. We know they were the same packages because the video shows they'd been marked by the WIS crew, the same technique we used.

Keep in mind, Food Lion had told us they were taking "aggressive action" as a result of our investigation.

When the problem was uncovered at their Columbia stores?

They said they were "appalled" and fired those responsible.

They weren't alone.

An employee at a BI-LO store also put returned meat back on the shelf and was disciplined when the company found out.

The danger with this, according to State Rep. Alan Clemmons (R-Horry County) is you don't know what happened to the meat when it was outside the store.

"We have regulations that follow the production and sale of beef or fresh meat from the very beginning, from the time the livestock is taken to the slaughterhouse," Clemmons told us in an interview. "What we found was, thanks to your investigation, the law is silent on that period of time between which meat is sold to a user and the meat is returned to the seller."

That's something Clemmons is trying to change.

Right now, South Carolina's regulation gives stores wiggle room saying they can re-sell meat if they believe it's "still in sound condition."

And that regulation was written by the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

"There are associates at stores all over the country that make these decisions every day and that's why many times when we get a complaint like this not only will we talk with the individual store, we'll also talk with the corporate management, as well," said DHEC spokesman Thom Berry in an interview for our original report.

The fact store employees are making that decision leaves a lot of state leaders uneasy, especially after they saw the WMBF News and WIS investigations.

It could actually result in a change in the law.

After seeing the WMBF News undercover video, Rep. Clemmons persuaded the House to pass a bill saying fresh meat "may not be offered to the public for resale" if it's been "returned by the consumer."

He says no supermarket chain opposed the bill.

"They shared with me some frustrations, such as they've shared with you. They have policies in place. They explain to me that they teach their policies," said Clemmons. "But then at the store level they find their policies not being enforced."

So if there's a law against re-selling meat, it just might get their clerks' attention.

Clemmons expects the Senate to pass the bill when legislators return early next year.

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