Posts Tagged ‘Business’

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Where is the Service in Customer Service?

July 29, 2010

We’ve all heard Marshall Field’s saying, “The customer is always right.”  While it makes for a nice catch phrase, businesses rarely practiced it.  Worldwide markets tend to devalue the importance of the individual customer resulting in a William Vanderbilt attitude of “the public be damned.”

Many industries meet the general needs of consumers.  Take the automakers for instance, they provide a rich selection of feature on their various makes and models.  Still, they provide the features thought to appeal to the mass market rather than the desires of individual customers.  It makes sense; Ford Motor Company should not be expected to provide a flushing toilet in a car just because one person asks for it.  On the other hand, time proved Henry Ford wrong with his famous quote: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black[i].”  The company soon realized it had to meet the basic wants as well as the basic needs of people to sell its products.

While we understand the limits in production, that in no way limits good customer service.  I remember my dad always wanted to own a Jaguar XKE.  For him, it was the ultimate sports car.  Not until I was an adult he have the financial means to buy his dream car, but by then, of course, the XKE was more a collector’s item than a car for daily driving.  He settled for one of current production models.

At the time, my dad drove a Ford F-150 Lariat with just about every extra possible.  It was a very nice truck.  He drove to the Jaguar dealership in Savannah and talked with the salesman for over an hour deciding on one from the lot.  It was a done deal really; my dad was going to pay for it outright.  All he wanted to know was how much the dealer would give for his truck in trade.  “Oh, we don’t take trucks here,” was the curt reply.  “You can go down to the corner, there is a used car guy there that will take it,” he further said as if shocked at the suggestion and that added insult to injury in my father’s eye.  The man was serious; they would not take the truck in trade.

After explaining that if he drove his truck off the lot, he would not be back, the dealer did not budge.  My dad drove his Ford F-150 Lariat with just about every extra possible off and headed to the Jaguar dealer in Atlanta, four hours away.  He asked the salesman one question, “Will you take my truck in trade.”  The salesman replied, “Of course we will.” To which my father told him “Son, you just sold a Jag.”

Ultimately, that car proved to be nothing but trouble for my father but he never forgot the salesman that “treated me with respect,” as he put it.  To the day my father passed away, he told the story of the salesman in Savannah that would not take his truck.  Moreover, he sang the praises of the dealership in Atlanta that did.  He would take his Jag to them; they would work on it, give him a loner car, take him to lunch, and generally make him feel he was important to them.  Even with a car that was problematic, their customer service kept my father coming back.

That is the lesson for people when they do business with any company, select one that treats you, as you want to be treated and avoid the ones that do not.  Your vote is with your dollar.  Had that dealer in Savannah simply done a little legwork, such as call the guy down the road and make the deal, he would have had a loyal customer for life.  As it is, that dealership closed long ago while the one in Atlanta goes on.  Could the arrogant attitude of the sales staff have something to do with it closing?  You bet!

If you allow yourself to be treated like one of a million cattle heading off to slaughter, that is exactly what you will be.  You will be used, processed and forgotten.  There is rudeness in the nation’s retail business because we, the customers, allow it. If a sales person, checkout clerk, store manager, or any other employee is rude to you, simply walk out.  Leave your buggy of groceries right there at the checkout stand and go.  Make a loud statement that you will not pay to be treated that way so everyone can hear.

It does not matter what a store thinks; if they want your money, it’s your rules.  You do not need to buy a Jaguar to have the respect of a sales staff.  As my dad’s case demonstrates, buying one in itself, does not guarantee that respect. I think my father would have gone down the road and sold his truck if only the salesman did not act insulted at the suggestion of taking it in trade.

Today, we deal with huge companies with automated customer service phone systems designed to frustrate the customer into simply dealing with their particular problem rather than deal with the hassle of receiving the support they pay for.  Cellular phone and cable/satellite companies come to mind.  They have a national strategy dealing with support that has little accountability to individual customer.  If your cable is not working and you talk with a service center across the country, just how vested are they in solving your problem?  While choices are limited regarding cell phones and TV connection, the one that provide service at a local level with provide better support.  Their livelihood depends on it.

In the end, the customer may not always be right but the customer has the money companies want, which makes them right by default.  Make companies earn your money, demand service, and hold them accountable when it’s not provided.  Sooner or later, if enough customers vote with their dollars, they will get the hint.  Either that or they will join the trash heap of companies that rode poor customer service into oblivion.


[i] Ford, Henry, and Samuel Crowther.  “Chapter IV.” My Life and Work,.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Pages 71 & 82, 1922.  Print.

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We’ve all heard Marshall Field’s saying, “The customer is always right.”  While it makes for a nice catch phrase, businesses rarely practiced it.  Worldwide markets tend to devalue the importance of the individual customer resulting in a William Vanderbilt attitude of “the public be damned.”

Many industries meet the general needs of consumers.  Take the automakers for instance, they provide a rich selection of feature on their various makes and models.  Still, they provide the features thought to appeal to the mass market rather than the desires of individual customers.  It makes sense; Ford Motor Company should not be expected to provide a flushing toilet in a car just because one person asks for it.  On the other hand, time proved Henry Ford wrong with his famous quote: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black[i].”  The company soon realized it had to meet the basic wants as well as the basic needs of people to sell its products.

While we understand the limits in production, that in no way limits good customer service.  I remember my dad always wanted to own a Jaguar XKE.  For him, it was the ultimate sports car.  Not until I was an adult he have the financial means to buy his dream car, but by then, of course, the XKE was more a collector’s item than a car for daily driving.  He settled for one of current production models.

At the time, my dad drove a Ford F-150 Lariat with just about every extra possible.  It was a very nice truck.  He drove to the Jaguar dealership in Savannah and talked with the salesman for over an hour deciding on one from the lot.  It was a done deal really; my dad was going to pay for it outright.  All he wanted to know was how much the dealer would give for his truck in trade.  “Oh, we don’t take trucks here,” was the curt reply.  “You can go down to the corner, there is a used car guy there that will take it,” he further said as if shocked at the suggestion and that added insult to injury in my father’s eye.  The man was serious; they would not take the truck in trade.

After explaining that if he drove his truck off the lot, he would not be back, the dealer did not budge.  My dad drove his Ford F-150 Lariat with just about every extra possible off and headed to the Jaguar dealer in Atlanta, four hours away.  He asked the salesman one question, “Will you take my truck in trade.”  The salesman replied, “Of course we will.” To which my father told him “Son, you just sold a Jag.”

Ultimately, that car proved to be nothing but trouble for my father but he never forgot the salesman that “treated me with respect,” as he put it.  To the day my father passed away, he told the story of the salesman in Savannah that would not take his truck.  Moreover, he sang the praises of the dealership in Atlanta that did.  He would take his Jag to them; they would work on it, give him a loner car, take him to lunch, and generally make him feel he was important to them.  Even with a car that was problematic, their customer service kept my father coming back.

That is the lesson for people when they do business with any company, select one that treats you, as you want to be treated and avoid the ones that do not.  Your vote is with your dollar.  Had that dealer in Savannah simply done a little legwork, such as call the guy down the road and make the deal, he would have had a loyal customer for life.  As it is, that dealership closed long ago while the one in Atlanta goes on.  Could the arrogant attitude of the sales staff have something to do with it closing?  You bet!

If you allow yourself to be treated like one of a million cattle heading off to slaughter, that is exactly what you will be.  You will be used, processed and forgotten.  There is rudeness in the nation’s retail business because we, the customers, allow it. If a sales person, checkout clerk, store manager, or any other employee is rude to you, simply walk out.  Leave your buggy of groceries right there at the checkout stand and go.  Make a loud statement that you will not pay to be treated that way so everyone can hear.

It does not matter what a store thinks; if they want your money, it’s your rules.  You do not need to buy a Jaguar to have the respect of a sales staff.  As my dad’s case demonstrates, buying one in itself, does not guarantee that respect. I think my father would have gone down the road and sold his truck if only the salesman did not act insulted at the suggestion of taking it in trade.

Today, we deal with huge companies with automated customer service phone systems designed to frustrate the customer into simply dealing with their particular problem rather than deal with the hassle of receiving the support they pay for.  Cellular phone and cable/satellite companies come to mind.  They have a national strategy dealing with support that has little accountability to individual customer.  If your cable is not working and you talk with a service center across the country, just how vested are they in solving your problem?  While choices are limited regarding cell phones and TV connection, the one that provide service at a local level with provide better support.  Their livelihood depends on it.

In the end, the customer may not always be right but the customer has the money companies want, which makes them right by default.  Make companies earn your money, demand service, and hold them accountable when it’s not provided.  Sooner or later, if enough customers vote with their dollars, they will get the hint.  Either that or they will join the trash heap of companies that rode poor customer service into oblivion.


[i] Ford, Henry, and Samuel Crowther.  “Chapter IV.” My Life and Work,.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Pages 71 & 82, 1922.  Print.

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Freedom: Individuals, Corporations, and the Constitution

July 2, 2010

Throughout history there are few, very few, documents or phrases known worldwide.  The opening three words of the U.S. Constitution, “We the People,[1]” is such a phrase.  Another is the Constitution’s first amendment.  It reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”[2]

While the exact words are not universally known, its parts most certainly are.  From it, citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the right to protection from an over zealous government through the courts, public hearings, and demonstrations.  It is these freedoms known around the world.  It is these freedoms that make the United States different from all other countries.

That is not to say our freedom is unlimited.  For instance, a religious belief that calls for human sacrifice simply is not tolerated.  Nor is speech that proves harmful, as in someone shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, unless, of course, there really is a fire.  The fact is the penalties for stepping beyond our limits of freedom are severe.  In the case of human sacrifice, we would charge a person with murder.  In the case of shouting “fire,” the charge would be something like reckless endangerment.

The protection afforded citizens of the United States follows common sense.  Stating it as a protection is the correct way to think about it.  Our constitution does not limit the rights of citizens; it limits our government’s ability to interfere with citizens.  Poignantly, our constitution includes an amendment that makes that abundantly clear, the tenth amendment.  It reads:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”[3]

Our federal government is limited to only the powers granted in the Constitution.  States retain their sovereignty and the powers granted in the various state constitutions.  More importantly, each citizen retains all other powers.  The ninth amendment reads:

“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”[4]

Another way to think about this is we do not have laws telling us what is legal for a citizen to do; we have laws telling us what is illegal.  The Constitution, and its amendments, specifically limits the power of government regarding the particular rights addressed.  It does not limit citizens to only those rights.

Just what is a citizen anyway?  The Constitution, in its original form, did not address the issue specifically.  It does speak to the mechanics of counting people for determining representation, but not to the requirements to become a citizen in the first place.[5] Granting citizenship through immigration simply was not a priority as the nation was taking its first steps.

After the Civil war, with the end of slavery, the fourteenth amendment was adopted.  It states being born in the United States carried with it citizenship, but left the naturalization process for immigrants up to the legislature.  Clause 1 reads:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”[6]

How a person becomes naturalized is still not addressed within the Constitution.  Currently, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 covers naturalization.  According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website[7], to gain naturalization an applicant must meet the following requirements:

  • Be 18 or older
  • Be a permanent resident (green card holder) for at least 5 years  immediately preceding the date of filing the Form N-400, Application for Naturalization
  • Have lived within the state, or USCIS district with jurisdiction over the applicant’s place of residence, for at least 3 months prior to the date of filing the application
  • Have continuous residence in the United States as a permanent resident for at least 5 years immediately preceding the date of the filing the application
  • Be physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing the application
  • Reside continuously within the United States from the date of application for naturalization up to the time of naturalization
  • Be able to read, write, and speak English and have knowledge and an understanding of U.S. history and government (civics).
  • Be a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States during  all relevant periods under the law

Becoming naturalized is a long and involved process.  There are exceptions, for instance individuals that join the military have a fast track to citizenship.

A person must either be born in the United States or go through a process to gain citizenship.  We have citizens by birth and by naturalization, but there is a third type of citizen, a corporate citizen.  As strange as it sounds, corporations in the United States enjoy many of the same rights as citizens of flesh and blood.  For example, if a corporation wrongs you, you sue it and not the stockholders.  The corporation, in this case, has the same legal standing as an individual.  When you think about it, it makes sense – just because a person owns a single share of IBM stock is no reason to drag them into court over an issue regarding the corporation.

Corporations may be citizens but they are limited ones.  If a citizen-person breaks the law, they go to prison.  There is no corporate body to send to jail.  The normal course of action is to levy a monetary fine.  This sort of issue highlights the problem of rights regarding corporations.  How rights apply to corporations and the constitutional implications affect all citizens daily.  A quick search of the Constitution shows the words corporation and business do not appear.  Given that, what makes a corporation a citizen?  Ironically, it is the same amendment that defines citizenship by birthright, the fourteenth amendment.

In 1886, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company[8]. The case dealt with a taxation issue.  California changed their state constitution to prevent railroad companies from deducting outstanding mortgage amounts from property values for tax purposes, something individuals were allowed.  The court sided with the railroads on the tax issue.  Part of the claim by Southern Pacific was the fourteenth amendment guaranteed them equal protection.  Technically, the court did not issue an opinion on the merits of that argument but found the state was wrong to apply such a tax.  Regardless, from that date on, corporations have claimed corporate “personhood,” and some of the rights of citizenship protected by the Constitution.

If ever you needed proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, this perversion of the fourteenth amendment provides it.  An amendment meant to protect the most vulnerable and disenfranchised citizens is used to protect the interests of powerful corporations.  That decision, 124 years ago, still affects every citizen today.  Its reach goes beyond the mundane issues of corporate taxation and interferes with the rights of real citizens, the ones with a heartbeat.

Corporations use this decision to remain beyond the reach of state governments regarding business regulations on many levels.  More directly, corporations claim a right to the first amendment protection of free speech.  Most recently, in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission the court found that corporations (both for profit and non-profit) and unions cannot be limited in political speech as specified in The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002[9], also know as The McCain-Feingold Act.  The result being by granting corporations the same right of free speech as individual citizens, they can spend virtually unlimited amounts of money to promote a particular point of view to the benefit of a particular candidate.

In effect, by granting corporations unfettered free speech rights, based on corporate personhood, individual citizens or candidates that do not hold a popular corporate or union view will receive no such support, effectively killing their right to equal access to the public.  Election costs are already out of control, this decision will drive them unbelievably higher still.

One solution is to treat corporations as individuals.  Simply throw away the corporate tax code and tax them as individuals with the same limited deductions real citizens face each tax season.  No longer allowed to write off expenses such as investment property or office space leases, billions of dollars would flow into the federal and state coffers.  Money used to pay for election related materials would remain taxable income.  People are not allowed to claim a non-profit status, remove it from corporations too, and tax them accordingly.  If corporations wish to be treated as people, they need to be taxed as people too.  Maybe then, they would have other matters to attend to than interfering with elections.

Of course, that idea is outrageous, but it further illustrates the problem with classifying corporations as citizens.  If they wish the rights of citizenship, they must carry the burdens of citizenship.  At the very least, limited corporate citizens should not enjoy rights real citizens do not have.  The right to raise and spend an unlimited amount of money to influence elections and policy matters undermines the very fabric of democracy.  It prevents real citizens from full and fair participation in elections and violates the first and fourteenth amendments by institutionalizing a “who can yell the loudest” mentality, thereby drowning out individual voices of dissension.

Only people born on the soil of the United States have a constitutional right to citizenship.  All other forms of citizenship are granted through legislation.  That legislation requires years of time and study for individuals to become citizens.  Corporations simply have to file some paperwork and pay a fee.  One has to wonder if a person here illegally gains the limited rights of citizenship by simply purchasing stock.  At the very least this Supreme Court decision granting unfettered first amendment rights to corporations gives foreign investors the means to legally influence U.S. federal elections.  They simply form a corporation, collect huge amounts of overseas money, pay the tax on it, and spend it.

In the end, by granting rights to corporations, rights of individuals are restricted.  Only extremely wealthy citizens like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have the ability to compete with our corporate citizens’ spending.  From now on, free speech is only for corporations and the super rich.  It’s been sold out from under the average citizen.  Do not act surprised when you wake up one morning to find the Constitution has changed to read “We the Corporations,” and it is the people with limited citizenship.


[1] “The Constitution of the United States,” Preamble.

 

[2] Ibid, Amendment I.

[3] Ibid, Amendment X.

[4] Ibid, Amendment IX.

[5] Ibid, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3.

[6] Ibid, Amendment XIV, Clause 1.

[7] “USCIS – Citizenship Through Naturalization.” USCIS Home Page. Web. 02 July 2010. <http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.eb1d4c2a3e5b9ac89243c6a7543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=d84d6811264a3210VgnVCM100000b92ca60aRCRD&vgnextchannel=d84d6811264a3210VgnVCM100000b92ca60aRCRD>

[8] “SANTA CLARA COUNTY V. SOUTHERN PACIFIC R. CO., 118 U. S. 394 :: Volume 118 :: 1886 :: Full Text.” US Supreme Court Cases from Justia & Oyez. Web. 02 July 2010. <http://supreme.justia.com/us/118/394/case.html>.

[9] H.R. 2356, 107 Cong., Congressional Record (2002) (enacted). Print.

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Ever Heard of Externality – Oil Companies Have!

May 22, 2010

Unless you are an economics major, most likely you have never heard the term externality.  Regardless, it affects each of us every day in positive and negative ways.  In days gone by, its affects were serendipitous but today corporations go to great lengths to take advantage of externalities to the detriment of the public at large.

Just what is externality anyway?  Here is a standard definition: “An economic side-effect.  Externalities are costs or benefits arising from an economic activity that affect somebody other than the people engaged in the economic activity and are not reflected fully in prices[i].”  To better understand, here are some examples:

A positive externality:

You buy a home in a rundown neighborhood, fix the house, and clean up the yard.  Your efforts not only benefit you but your neighbors as well.  Your efforts, for them, are a positive externality as they enjoy the improved view and your efforts even increase their property value at no cost to them.

A negative externality:

The house you purchased and fixed up is on a lovely stream full of brook trout.  Two years after you move in, a manufacturer builds a facility 30 miles up-stream.  The solvent they dump into the stream goes unnoticed, unregulated, and pollute it.  All you know is the fish are gone and it smells bad.  You have the water tested and it’s full of sulfur and will cost you and your neighbors $100,000 to clean up.  Unless you can trace the pollution back to the company, you and your neighbors bear the cost of a problem created by another.

In the positive example, the actions of one benefit another; in the negative example, the actions of one harm another.  Individuals, corporations, and governments leverage externality.  In the case of individuals they simply may enjoy a benefit, a business might avoid a cost it should rightly pay, governments may demand social programs be financed by both corporations and individuals that receive no benefit from it.

The real problem with externality comes with not recognizing it for what it is.  This lack of understanding lends itself to abuse and corruption on a massive scale.  We need look no further than the Gulf of Mexico for a real-life example.  Even before stopping the leaking oil in the ongoing disaster, the corporation that owns the sunken Deepwater Horizon oilrig, Transocean Ltd (Transocean traces its roots to the Gulf of Mexico but now is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland[ii]) filed a motion in Federal Court seeking to limit liability to just under $27 million.  An article posted on Law360’s website[iii] by Melissa Lipman gives the details as well as a link to the actual filing.

Transocean seeks to transfer the cost of the oil spill to British Petroleum (BP) and taxpayers in the United States.  In effect, making any additional costs an externality, an externality we must pay and they avoid.  By the way, the 1851 law Transocean sites limits ship owner’s liability to the value of a ship after its loss.  This makes them liable for the loss of cargo only.  Transocean claims the rig had about $27 million worth of crude oil on it when it sank.  If successful, Transocean will keep most of the $533 million[iv] of insurance money carried on the rig.

All the while, BP is relatively happy knowing federal law limits its liability to $75 million, unless they were negligent in maintaining federal safety standards.  BP still faces lawsuits filed in state courts but in the end, they too will avoid the total cost of the clean up effort by transferring much of it to the government and ultimately the American taxpayer.

Externality is the game corporations play to win.  Back in my engineering days, our motto to reduce repair costs was “make it someone else’s problem.”  It was very effective to say the least.  Corporations take this motto and run with it in every aspect of business.  They seek laws that push costs rightly bore by them to taxpayers.  Furthermore, they seek to have unrelated laws interpreted to reduce liability.  The Transocean filing is a perfect example.  They are attempting to use a law that limits a ship-owner’s liability concerning cargo to limit their liability regarding environmental damage of the product they pump out of the ground.

Corporations use the 14th amendment to the US Constitution to define themselves as a person but that does not give them the good judgment or morality that comes with sentience.  There is evidence to suggest if a real person acts like a corporation, society will deem him or her a psychopath[v] if measured by World Health standards.  While that may not be true for all corporations, it does explain much of the bad behavior the news covers almost daily.  Corporations cannot be trusted with environmental stewardship.  It is contrary to their primary purpose to maximize profits for their owners.  That is why we need sensible regulations that require businesses to correct the bad deeds and unintended consequences (giving them the benefit of the doubt) regardless of cost.

In the end, we need to prevent corporations from using calculated externality to shift costs they rightly should pay.  It is not a question of their particular product costing more because someone else’s will cost more to make up the difference.  Take businesses’ own axiom “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”  In this case, the big oil companies are eating the lunch but taxpayers are going to pick up the tab.


[i] The Economist Newspaper, Limited. “Economics A-Z.” Economist.com. Web. 22 May 2010. <http://www.economist.com/research/economics/alphabetic.cfm?letter=E>.

[ii] Transocean, Ltd. “Transocean :: Our History.” Transocean :: Home. Web. 22 May 2010. <http://www.deepwater.com/fw/main/Our-History-3.html>.

[iii] Lipman, Melissa. “Transocean Seeks To Cap Oil Spill Liability At $27M – Law360.” Law360 : The Newswire for Business Lawyers. Web. 22 May 2010. <http://www.law360.com/articles/168268>.

[iv] Kahn, Chris. “Transocean Cites 1851 Law to Limit Spill Liability – U.S. Business- Msnbc.com.” Breaking News, Weather, Business, Health, Entertainment, Sports, Politics, Travel, Science, Technology, Local, US & World News- Msnbc.com. Web. 22 May 2010. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37128693/ns/business-us_business/>.

[v] Hulu – The Corporation –  By Joel Bakan. http://www.Hulu.com. Web. 22 May 2010. <http://www.hulu.com/watch/118169/the-corporation?c=News-and-Information/Documentary-and-Biography>.

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Warning! This Article is About to Expire

March 15, 2010

Here’s the situation:  You’ve had a craving for something fresh to eat all day.  After work, you stop at your local grocery store and start looking for anything tasty.  Fruit, yogurt, and a big bag of salad are scanned, paid for, and sacked; you’re on your way.  At home you prepare the fruit, wash the bag of salad, only then does the problem start – you open the yogurt and it’s rancid.  Disappointment sets in.

Everyone comes across spoiled food from time to time, even if you do your due diligence, inspecting it and looking at the date stamped on it.  We simply put it into the “stuff” happens category and move on.  Regardless of effort, from time to time something goes wrong in the delivery chain and an item is spoiled.  For the most part, time is the enemy of freshness.  That is why providers do things like date products, to aid in knowing how long we have to enjoy our tasty treat.  That brings up another problem, just what does a date mean when it’s on a product in the grocery store?

The answer is it depends on the words that accompany the date.  In this case, words really do matter.  The most common date is the ubiquitous “Sell By” date.  Did you know that the government does not require any food to carry a sell-by date?  It is merely a guideline indicating freshness and there is no regulation regarding it.  Stores have no obligation to remove items that are beyond their sell-by date from shelves.  For them, it is simply a public relations issue.

What about the other dates we see, “Use By,” and “Best Before” for instance?  Use-by does have regulation around it but only where baby food is concerned.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates baby formula and requires the date to ensure it meets nutritional levels that are appropriate.  For poultry, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates it and they only require the display of the date packaged.  They allow other dates, as sell-by or best-before, but in addition to the packaging date.  For most other products, dates are simply window dressing.

Now before anyone out there gets the idea I am suggesting we hire a bunch of food Nazis to oversee the national food supply, I am not.  It is in the best interest of companies to supply food that is safe, fresh, and tasty.  The point is to give the consumer understanding of the date used on labels.  Perhaps it would help if they used some standards but they don’t. At best a general guide can be provided, but it in no way is definitive:

Date Description Meaning
Sell By If sold by this date, the product, like milk, will remain fresh for the expected time to consume it at home, 5 days, or so.
Use By Depends on product, on baby formula it means use by this date to receive the minimum nutritional value allowed.  On other products it is more a guideline.
Packaged Used on meat products to indicate the date it was literally packaged in the container you see.  It does not tell you how fresh the product is before packaging.
Best Before Basically a statement used by the maker to say if you use it by this date, it will taste fresh.
You may find many other labels for dates.  Other than the few required by regulation, they are only indications of relative freshness.  That is the fact to keep in mind.

Besides taste, there are other important reasons to seek out fresher food.  Of great importance are bacteria.  The longer food sits around, the more bacteria grows; it is unavoidable.  Proper handling reduces the growth but cannot eliminate it.  Obviously this is a greater threat with produce, dairy and meats than with packaged foods.  While grocery stores do a good job of maintaining proper temperatures for particular foods, our home refrigerators do not.

It is not a design problem with refrigerators but simply our use as a general storage that creates the issue.  Meats need colder temperatures to retard bacteria, temperatures that damage fresh vegetables.  At home, we strike a balance of sorts but it is not open-ended.  Regardless of any date placed upon meats, if not stored at the proper temperatures, they will spoil.  The best practice is to freeze them unless they are to be used within the next day or two, at the most.  Pallavi Gogoi wrote a wonderful article for Business Week (click here to read) that covers the matter in greater detail.

Another reason to seek out fresher food, all food looses its nutritional value over time.  The longer it sits the less benefit your body receives from it.  Research conducted by Penn State (click here to read report) showed spinach looses over 50% of its folate (vitamin B) and carotenoid (vitamin A and anti-oxidants) levels in just eight days.  That is not eight days from when it reaches the store but eight days after its harvested.  Think of it this way, if its picked today and packaged, shipped to a supplier tomorrow, then moved to a distribution center the next day, then on to a store the next, stored for a day, put on the shelve the next day, bought by you the day after that, then used the following day that’s eight days. Perhaps it is best for fruits and vegetables to use a “Picked On” date but fat-chance for that to happen.  If ever you needed justification to buy locally grown vegetables, here it is!

In the end, product dates are really just guidelines to help us understand freshness.  The point is to check dates and always buy the freshest products possible.  Understand that most dates are not drop-dead dates for food but speak only to its freshness.  After all, freshness is the key – it limits bacterial growth while increasing nutritional value.  Always look for the date, figure out what it’s really telling you, then buy the freshest foods you can.

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