The Fate of Returned Food in Grocery Stores

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I am sitting here this morning with a brick in my chest, hoping that God has a plan for the events of my trip to the grocery store. During a week in which I’ve asked people to be conscious of the food they waste, I just caused ten unopened boxes of perfectly fine food to be thrown away by a grocery store.

How did this happen?

I purchased the items a few weeks ago at Family Fare- they were an amazing deal after a rebate. Free, actually. How can you pass that up? I had some misgivings at the time, because it wasn’t very healthy food. (Hamburger Helper – but don’t tell anyone!)  My husband likes the stuff, though, so I knew it would get eaten eventually. I’ve never seen a rebate expire so fast, but it had to be postmarked by the last day of the promotion, so when I filled out the form a week later, I was already way too late. Frustrated at my waste of time, I decided I would take the whole lot back to the store so I didn’t waste money, too.

UPDATE:  I have discovered a successful, homemade substitute for Hamburger Helper!

After the clerk rang up my return, squinting at me in disgust the whole time, she put Xs on the tops of all the boxes with a black marker. It slowly dawned on me, washing me in dread, what those marks meant, and the ramifications of what I had done. The greed of “free stuff” coupled with the carelessness of not reading the small print immediately, along with the “efficiency” of taking things back when the rebate failed…all together meant that all 10 boxes were going to be thrown away, completely wasted.

My mind whirling, I tried to make the decision about whether I should cry out, “Cancel the return! I can’t stand wasting food!” or just continue as planned. It was a foundational moment of Kitchen Stewardship tension, really – the tug of my money and my time vs. my family’s nutrition (I was very aware of the unhealthiness and relative “fake”ness of the food in question) and the environment. All that packaging, all that food and “food” product, all the fossil fuels used to transport the stuff, the impact on the landfill…Arg! Also aware that the clerk already thought I was nuts to be returning the stuff, I stayed mute and let the atrocity continue.

I did ask some questions, though, and I hope we can all learn from this.

It turns out that any item that can go into the mouth must be disposed of if it has been previously sold. I asked for clarification, and the clerk said, “Meijer does the same thing.”  From what I gathered, it’s either a law or a fairly standard policy practice among supermarkets. Yikes!

In the past, I have bought and returned food without considering that it might be thrown away. Just this week I returned some spices that I bought on sale, only to find a WAY better deal a few weeks later, before I had opened them. Good bye, sweet cloves and allspice! I didn’t know I was dooming you to the dumpster! :(

Now I understand that I can’t treat food purchases as I do clothing (which, with 2 kiddos now, I often buy without trying on and return what I don’t like). I must be certain I want/need an item and that it is my pricepoint before I purchase. Shame on me for all that food I wasted today!

Let’s make this official. My new commitment:  I will accept responsibility for my food purchases and never return anything unless it is defective or unsafe for my family.

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33 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Sue E. says

    Katie, I never knew that food returned would have to be thrown out, either!! I think if I ever find myself in that situation again, donating the food to a local food bank would be a great option. At least I know the food will be eaten! Thanks for a great post (and for telling me about your blog today……great meeting you and your children!!)
    Sue e.

  2. Mary says

    I applaud your courage in admitting your ‘goof’ in a public forum. I find that very difficult.

  3. Sharon says

    I work for a large grocery store chain. Everything that is edible that has left the store must be trashed. With all the recalls and lawsuits, it is store policy that nothing goes back on the shelf for fear of contamination or spoilage. We see a lot of waste. The local Second Harvest gets the deli and produce that went out of date that day. So aleast that is not going in the garbage.

  4. says

    I loved your post, and it’s a great reminder to be thoughtful of what we buy, and of the cost/inconvenience to others. :)

    A few more things — some stores have the policy of only throwing away returned food if it’s perishable, frozen (i.e. had to have been kept at a certain temp), or refrigerated. So, a bag of lettuce would be tossed; a can of tomatoes would go back on the shelf (provided it doesn’t look tampered with, obviously!). I am guessing their policy depends on the store/chain/location.

    Secondly, stores can get credit from the manufacturer for some returned items, even though they are throwing it away.

    Thirdly, many stores actually don’t throw away the refrigerated/frozen/perishable items, but donate it to local food banks. So the store is getting credit from the manufacturer and the food is getting eaten. If the food gets returned to the manufacturer, they give the store a credit, donate the food to a food bank, and take a tax deduction for the donation. So it ends up working out.

    I’m NOT trying to say that it’s okay to just buy whatever and return it without thought — just trying to give more info as to what can and often does happen. :)

    Info sources: first-hand info from several friends who work in the grocery industry, and a husband who works in the food industry (manufacturer).

    • Katie says


      Wow, thank you for the great info! I happened to ask at my major grocery chain, Meijer, and they said the policy is “throw it out” for all food. That makes both food stores I shop at, so I’m sticking with the “commit to what you buy” policy. I’m glad to hear it’s not all over the country!

  5. homejewel says

    There are many places where dumpster divers would have “rescued” those boxes of Hamburger Helper. I used to dumpster dive and then distribute to friends (many who were in dire straits financially). It was amazing how much food that was thrown away in sealed packages, sometimes cases, and the expiration date was still days away. Anybody who received the food from me knew where it came from and they were absolutely fine with it. Don’t worry about it.

  6. Jamie says

    I have a pitiful story to tell you (most of you wont be very happy…) but restaurants do the same thing (no, I am not just talking about the food you send back and you need something completely new, (of course that gets tossed) but at the end of the night certain food items get thrown out). For example, if a place serves fresh salads, at the end of the night, the lettuce gets thrown in the dumpster, basically only items that are good for one shift/day will invariably end up in the trash–it is a sad sad thing to see all that waste…and you say, “why not give to the food bank?” great question..but the “simple” answer is how “sue-happy” our country is. They can’t give to the local food bank, because, afterall is Ed (who is eating at said food bank) finds and chokes on a screw in his salad, it’s on the restaurant’s shoulders….whether it came from the restaurant or it happened ten minutes before “Ed” served himself…it’s a sad thing, that is for sure.

    (my info? first-hand, I have actually thrown out entire containers of lettuce at a very reputable chain-restaurant…and that was just the stuff that I couldn’t take home (because I had already taken some)) I have seen the dumpster and I was given the aforementioned “reason”)

    • Katie says

      Oh, sad sad. I was at a baby shower this fall, and the restaurant wouldn’t even let the people who paid for the food take the leftovers from the buffet home. That just seemed ODD. Thanks for visiting!

  7. says

    Oh, I had to laugh about the Dumpster Diving comment! I have relatives who do that and salvage lots of stuff for themselves and others. :) I also know people who work at grocery stores and are able to snag things when they see them go out to the dumpster… and winter time is particularly good for milk and frozen food! :)

    But yes, I agree — a store’s return policy is GREAT when there is a defective product. Just changing our minds or whatever — we’re costing them time and money and maybe causing food to be wasted as a result… the “greener” way is to buy cautiously and wisely! 😀

  8. Anon says

    My sister used to be manager for a large department store. They do the same thing with clothes- not necessarily returns- just things they’re taking out that are unsold. They were required to destroy the items. She once personally cut up a tuxedo.

    I’ve worked in restaurants and concur with those who say a lot of food gets thrown away. We threw away everything that had been heated or was fresh, like the soups, salad, potatoes, etc. It is truly horrifying how much waste goes on.

  9. says

    I had no idea that perfectly good food that was returned had to be thrown away. Sometimes my husband will stop at the store and buy something we can’t use, or maybe buy the wrong size (i.e. not on sale) and I will return it to get the right thing. I had no idea they would just throw it away.

    • Katie says

      Jennifer, From the great comments folks have left at this post, it sounds like this isn’t national policy. It’s worth checking at your main stores, but it’s certainly eye-opening!

  10. says

    Katie, if it makes you feel any better, I would not call Hamburger Helper “perfectly good food”!

    Between the partially hydrogenated oils, the MSG, the food colorings, and the soy flour…and some of the other ingredients…

    So I would say that it found its best possible home in the garbage can!

    For stretching meat, I might recommend breadcrumbs, herbs and spices, and shredded or grated onions and vegetables…as an added benefit, you can sneak in a lot of zucchini this way without anyone knowing that they’re eating vegetables!
    .-= Alex´s last blog ..Meat Of Known Origin (MOKO) In Boston Right Now =-.

  11. Candy says

    That is a retailer’s nightmare. Someone who buys it one day and finds a better deal the next. That is not the reason for the return policy. The reason behind a return is for defective/wrong size merchandise. A better price (on food) is returning for all the WRONG reasons. A little better planning would seem to be in order here or suck it up and take a loss on a hastily made decision in the never ending quest to save a buck. I too am a couponer but would never dream of returning food items just because I find a better price the next day. It is what it is.

    • Sarah says

      I think that was kind of the point of the post… the realization that this was not a good choice.

      I, for one, applaud Katie for having the guts to share her story – with the intent of helping the rest of us think through our choices – even knowing that someone was likely to judge her.

  12. Rebecca says

    “They can’t give to the local food bank, because, afterall is Ed (who is eating at said food bank) finds and chokes on a screw in his salad, it’s on the restaurant’s shoulders….whether it came from the restaurant or it happened ten minutes before “Ed” served himself…it’s a sad thing, that is for sure.”

    So true! On the upside, our local grocery stores do not throw out salads and veggies when they are a little old to be selling. They don’t give them to the soup kitchen because of liability, but almost all of the zoo’s produce is from old veggies from the stores. :) The zoo has to buy their meat and supplements (not that normal stores carry the right kind of meat anyway), but they rarely have to buy their veggies.

  13. Megan says

    Thats horrible. In retrospect I would have taken the loss on my budget and donated it to a food bank or eaten it if I knew it was going to be thrown away. On the restaurant note, I used to work at Panera and they throw away all their baked goods at the end of the night usually. I had to do this all the time. Panera will donate it though if a food bank contacts a particular store and asks for the leftover baked goods. We had a church come in every Monday for our goods from that day. So I suggest if you know of a food bank that you call your local Panera and see if they will give you donations.

  14. Heather says

    You mentioned returning spices. When it comes to spices, the very best quality & prices are almost never going to be in places that have sales. The BEST is Azure Standard, if you have that available. Next best is you local health food store that sells bulk herbs and spices. After that, Costco and ethnic food stores. The grocery store is the WORST place to buy such things. You actually pay the highest prices for the worst quality. For the price of a couple of ounces of, say, oregano, from the grocery store, I can by an entire pound from Azure–and it’ll be so fresh that merely opening the bag is an olfactory treat.

  15. Johanna says

    Old post, new comment! I have had similar “sales issues” before. One of my grocery stores will match the price if I bring in the competitor’s ad. For me it’s always been within the week or two of the original purchase, but I’m not sure how long they’d offer the adjustment. I figure they either lose the sale completely [and have to dispose of the item] or give a partial refund. But for the most part, we don’t shop the same way these days. Although today, I DID use those “free storebrand items” type coups and will donate all them to the food pantry.

  16. Hélène says

    I have never even attempted a perishable product becuz I changed my mind. But if it’s defective, sure. A non-perishable, unopened, saleable product though, of course. I’ve watched them put it back in the return-to-be-shelved carts or bins also. I’ve been told several times, too …we can’t take that back, it’s been opened, so we can’t sell it (when it was something either I’d unwittingly bought “opened” or somehow managed to get it caught on something and a tiny little something ripped off and so now it was “opened”). Meaning, they do indeed resell returned food. I’m in western NY state and have never heard of something like your story.
    Then again, I wouldn’t hesitate to return food evenso, it’s not my fault the stores waste money and I can NOT waste mine. Even if restaurants and bakeries, etc waste their leftover food too. They have figured it into their costs, so it’s part of the meal I buy there, paying for the wasted food. You better believe the store figures it in too and I have paid for it in the markup on my food purchase. Business passes alllll costs onto the buyer. Even tax writeups are then financed by ordinary taxpayers paying more taxes.

    • Katie says

      I have since asked another clerk at another store, after watching them sort everything by aisle, and she confirmed that they have to throw EVERYthing away. I guess the sorting is just for show, but how odd, right? I was returning Doritos my husband forgot to take on his 12-man camping trip. I am not going to pay almost $20 for 6 bags of MSG-laden crap that I didn’t want my family to eat!

      :) Katie

  17. Tiffany says

    Actually, returned food with an X doesn’t always get thrown away. There’s a discount grocery store near my house that sells lots of these items. Hamburger helper with X’s on them, (for 99 cents each) dented canned goods (29 cents), packages of Oreo’s that had been crushed (1.29) and other defective products.

    • ZT says

      Oh, I guess I should’ve read your comment before making my own. Anyway, as I mentioned, we have stores just like that. The one we usually go to is called Manny’s and you can often find Hamburger Helper and cake mixes for 50 cents each. You need to use your best discretion when shopping there, but I haven’t had any problems so far. And dented canned goods are just fine as long as you heat the contents properly; I’ve survived many cans of clam chowder and chili!

  18. ZT says

    Not all stores throw away returned grocery products. Many of them will either donate them or sell them to other stores for a much lower price. For instance: we have damaged-goods stores around here where you will find shelves of dented cans and these X-ed out boxes of Hamburger Helper. It’s also common to find previously-opened boxes that have been taped back up. Buying some of these things is a bit of a gamble, but for the huge discount, it can often be worth the risk. All I can say that we’ve managed to avoid getting sick for the last few years!

  19. Kitty says

    if you find these good deals that you can’t pass up you could always send them to the food pantry for someone who doesn’t care or can’t afford to care about Best nutrition but just wants something to put in the stomach.

  20. Louise says

    I was horrified recently when a friend told me that supermarkets throw away perfectly good returned food. I never knew that. I couldn’t help but think about my mother in law who would struggle to finish everything in her plate because to throw it away would be wasteful! If she couldn’t manage to finish it she would save even a minuscule amount for the next day. She had been brought up in the depression. How sad to think that her sense of responsibility was completely wasted. It upsets me to think of how much food is wasted in this country while people starve here and elsewhere.

  21. Linda says

    I heard people take foods from food pantries to return to stores for cigarettes or other items. Has any one else heard of this?

    • L says

      Yes Linda! Things like that happen! That is also why stores do not allow people to dumpster dive! They will take it out say it was bad when they bought it and get money back! It is illegal to go into dumpsters! Although people try it all the time. Where I work we destroy things that go in there so it cant be returned. Granted we donate a lot of stuff also. Dented cans ripped boxes from travel. That stuff is donated bc there is nothing wrong with it. If it is in the dumpster there is a very good reason the store has put it there!

  22. Katie says

    Yikes. I’ve been looking for confirmation. I guess I understand the contamination/lawsuit issue, but what a sad world we live in when we have to do that. I wish more people knew about this! We would probably return fewer food items. I will be featuring Second Harvest (now called “Feeding America”) in a post in a month or two! They do great work.

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