Ask Miriam | Who’s to Blame for Bad Food?

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Dear Miriam,

I’ve purchased a few food products recently that weren’t good. For example, milk that was sour before its expiration date, frozen chicken nuggets that had mold on them, lettuce that was brown less than 24 hours after getting home. These were all from different stores and on different days. Do I contact the company to complain, or return to the store, and is it really worth doing either?

Signed,

Something Rotten

Dear Rotten,

These hot summer months pose many challenges for keeping food fresh, and it’s probably impossible to know whether the responsibility for these spoiled items lies with the people who made the food, the ones who transported it, the ones who sold it or (sorry) the ones who bought it. There is also a real time versus money calculus in making any kind of return, so it’s worth thinking not just about who’s responsible, but about how much it’s worth it to you to try to address the problem.

Are you likely to change what brand of milk you buy because of this? If so, contact the brand directly and tell them that. Are you more likely to change where you buy your milk? If so, contact the store and aim for your money back. I can’t promise, of course, that you’ll get any kind of favorable response in either case. You’re likely need a receipt to accomplish a store return, which you probably didn’t save. You’ll likely need some identifying feature from the packaging to contact the company, which you probably don’t have either.

I doubt that these returns are worth your time. Even with the three items you listed, you are probably talking about wasting $15? It’s certainly not nothing, but it would be hard for me to justify schlepping around to multiple stores for a $5 return at each one. I intensely hate wasting food, but I honestly hate wasting time even more. Of course, if one or more of these stores happens to be on your way to work, you could stop in, but I’m picturing lugging a gallon of rotten milk down the street, and it just doesn’t add up.

It’s possible to be on hold with a company while doing other tasks in your life, so if you go with that option, you’re not wasting as much time, potentially. But even in the best-case scenario, they send you some coupons, so you’ve only made your money back if you want to keep buying their products. If you do go to the store or make a call to complain, remember that it’s not the fault of whichever employee you happen to reach that day, so make sure that you’re not taking your frustrations out in a misdirected way. Sure, it can be immensely satisfying to complain to someone, but maybe you’ve accomplished that here and don’t need to go any further.

Finally, it’s worth thinking about your own buying habits and whether some smarter shopping on your part could alleviate some of these issues. Buying local produce at farmers markets will always give you better results than grocery store salad. Have a plan for any produce you buy so that you’re using it at its freshest.

Be sure your own fridge and freezer are at the correct temperatures so that fragile items are staying cold, and also be sure you’re not taking too long to get things in the fridge and freezer when you get home from shopping. Buying smaller containers of things costs more in the short term, but it may ultimately make more sense so you’re not finding things going bad before you’ve used them up.

Be well,

Miriam

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