Why the customer isn’t always right

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st yoghurt Ex-QDMS ROBUST: Yoghurt has a relatively long shelf life, and is perfectly okay to eat even two to three weeks beyond its best-before date.

Wendy Knowler

Most of the people who write to me for help and advice have had a raw deal at the hands of a company, and I draw immense satisfaction from taking up and resolving as many of those cases as I can.

But there are a handful of complainants who, at best, are unreasonable in their demands or, at worst, economical with the truth.

For the sake of balance I’m sharing two such cases today, both received in the past few weeks.

The first came from a chap called Melvyn who was so incensed at the treatment he received at a supermarket that he was threatening to boycott the group.

Its “sin”? Giving him 95c change, when he was owed, um, 95c change.

Melvyn’s purchases had come to R69.05, and instead of rounding that down to R69 and giving him R1, the cashier had handed him coins totalling 95c.

“They should have rounded it off to R69,” he fumed.

I pointed out that rounding off is not intended to enrich a consumer, and that stores are obliged to round off to the customer’s benefit only if they can’t provide the exact change.

Melvyn countered that it was a lack of “courtesy” not to round off.

In other words, it was discourteous of the cashier to give him what he was owed.

Really.

Most of the e-mails I’ve saved in my OMG folder are of the “foreign object found in food” variety. Yes, it’s a serious issue, and the Consumer Protection Act makes everyone from the retailer to the manufacturer liable if a consumer suffers harm from a product.

But some consumers regard such a discovery as a winning lottery ticket, claiming to have been violently ill at the sight or partial consumption of the contaminated product, and demanding “appropriate” compensation.

And they want me to share their outrage and champion their cause.

“Mike’s” e-mail is in a league of its own.

He claimed he’d bought a six-pack of yoghurts, unaware that the best-before date was the day before.

Two days later his wife fed one of the yoghurts to their four-year-old daughter, only realising that the yoghurt had “expired” when she looked at the empty container afterwards.

This is where the story gets really interesting.

That night, Mike claims, the child sweated excessively in her sleep, and her nappy had to be changed several times.

By the morning she was coughing and complaining of stomach pain, so they took her to the doctor who confirmed that she had bronchitis, “caused by sweating, and the sweating was caused by the expired yoghurt she ate”.

The doctor prescribed “medicines for detox and for bronchitis”, Mike said.

But when he returned to the supermarket in question, asking the manager for a refund of his medical expenses, the manager said he was willing to exchange the “expired” yoghurt but said he’d have to speak to the manufacturer about a refund of the medical expenses.

When no one got back to Mike, he wrote to me for help.

I wrote back, saying that while it was clearly not best practice to leave products on shelves beyond their best-before date, this was not illegal in terms of new food labelling regulations.

(It is, however, illegal to sell foods beyond their use-by or sell-by dates.)

I sent Mike a doctor’s view on the issue which, in brief, is that yoghurt has a relatively long shelf life, and it is perfectly okay to eat it even two to three weeks beyond its best-before date, with no ill effects.

The worst that could happen after consuming yoghurt way beyond its best-before date would be a slight tummy ache and maybe a bit of diarrhoea, the doctor said.

The child may well have had bronchitis, but that is caused by viruses, bacteria and other particles that irritate the bronchial tubes, not by eating yoghurt three days beyond its best-before date.

Mike hasn’t responded.


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