Hospitals and pharmacies are required to toss expired drugs, no matter how expensive or vital. Meanwhile the FDA has long known that many remain safe and potent for years longer.
The federal agencies that stockpile drugs — including the military, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Veterans Affairs — have long realized the savings in revisiting expiration dates.
In 1986, the Air Force, hoping to save on replacement costs, asked the FDA if certain drugs’ expiration dates could be extended. In response, the FDA and Defense Department created the Shelf Life Extension Program.
Each year, drugs from the stockpiles are selected based on their value and pending expiration and analyzed in batches to determine whether their end dates could be safely extended. For several decades, the program has found that the actual shelf life of many drugs is well beyond the original expiration dates.
A 2006 study of 122 drugs tested by the program showed that two-thirds of the expired medications were stable every time a lot was tested. Each of them had their expiration dates extended, on average, by more than four years, according to research published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences.