Saturday, November 14, 2009

the story (aka 'a most revealing email')

I have this really bad habit of being like a dog with a bone. I cannot just let an issue be, unless it is resolved. Or until I have done absolutely everything possible to see it resolved.

For the last twelve months I have been caught up in just such an issue. I knew I was being annoying, but I could not let it go. Finally, in the last day or two I have found some peace. Not the solution I wanted, but I have let go of the bone.

The story goes like this.

On the 21st November last year I opened a tin of organic tomatoes and tipped them into the saucepan. The tomatoes turned out to be bad and, after leaving a message with the company in question, I had to throw the meal away.

The company were less than accommodating. They possibly called Frank's mobile, but he didn't know what they wanted and hung up, so for all intents and purposes they did not return my call. A week later the bad tomatoes were still in my fridge and I rang again, during the day, and spoke with the PR woman. She advised me the company had no use for the product I had been keeping in the fridge, and since they process thousands of tons of tomatoes every year of course there might be a rotten tin or two, as if the situation was completely acceptable. If I wanted to, I could email her our address (which I did) and she would send out some replacement product. We didn't hear back until January 2009, when we received a box with a selection of the company's organic produce. I figured that was that and got on with life.

Lurking in the back of my cupboard, however, was another can of tomatoes bought at the same time. I was rather reluctant to use them, but eventually decided it was unlikely there were two tins of bad tomatoes, so I opened the can, cautiously tipped them into a bowl before pouring them into the saucepan and...

Another can of bad tomatoes! Who would have thought. I carefully bagged them up, put them in the fridge and wrote a letter to the company. I opted for snail mail to see if I could avoid dismissive PR woman, and dropped the letter in the post on 10 May 2009.

Nothing. By 2 June I had received no reply, so I emailed another copy of the letter and asked if they had received the paper copy. The next day PR woman replied. Yes, they had my letter and were following it up. To help in their investigations could I please respond to a few questions, including clarification of the date of the first incident - did I mean December 2007? (No, I meant December 2008 - don't you remember that?) Wanting a speedy resolution, I immediately sent off my answers and waited.

And waited.
And waited.

By 11 October 2009 (yes, that is FIVE months!) I had heard nothing from the company, so I emailed again to ask how their investigations were going. 'Oh yes, the investigation,' PR woman replied the next day, 'could you please answer the questions we sent you in June? We can't do anything until we hear from you.'

Ha. She picked the wrong person. I keep all my emails. I'm surprised Yahoo haven't emailed me and complained on the size of my sent box, leave alone the overflowing inbox! I found my previous email from 3 June 2009 and forwarded it to her again, pointing out the date I had originally sent it.

Further silence.

By the 28 October I was tired of waiting. This had been going on for nearly six months. Eleven if you counted the first can of tomatoes, of which they conveniently had no record. I contemplated letting it go, but (dog with a bone) I just couldn't. People die from tins of bad tomatoes. This is a serious health issue and shouldn't be ignored.

I wanted them to admit it was really bad that I had found two tins of bad tomatoes. I wanted them to acknowledge this was no minor matter. I wanted it enough to start investigating how to take it further, so I decided I would email one more time. If I did not receive a reply I would make a formal complaint to the ACCC.

Five days later (on 3 November 2009) I received my reply. The Italian company who process the tomatoes were very surprised as they have never had a complaint like this before, and without testing the product they could do nothing further. If I would like replacement product or a refund, please forward my address to them. Oh, and sorry for the inconvenience this has caused.

Not the most satisfying outcome I've ever had. Especially since they already had three copies of my address - from the first tomato incident, the letter in May, and the emailed letter in June. Then of course, I had kept the tomatoes for more than a month before throwing them out due to the company's complete lack of interest. And does no previous record of bad tomatoes make it OK? I don't think so.

So last week I told them what they could do with their replacement product and refund. Politely of course - something along the lines of 'in view of the protracted and indifferent way this issue has been dealt with, I feel less than reassured of the quality of xxxx Organic Tomatoes, and would prefer not to receive replacement product. This was never really about the money (a tin of tomatoes does not cost that much, after all), but about bringing a potentially serious problem to the attention of xxxx.' I informed them my concerns were not allayed but I had decided to accept the situation. Putting the bone down, over and out, thankyou and goodbye.

I was not sure what response this would provoke, but an immediate reply from the company director was not amongst my imagined possibilities. PR woman and I had been cc-ing him into our emails for some time, but he had never communicated with me directly. I clicked on the email with some trepidation - I really hate when my inbox becomes a battle zone, which it tends to when I've asserted myself electronically.

This email was shocking but delicious:

Possibly we should ask her what she would do ? Put a warning on the can ???

Nothing more.

Ha. Caught out by the 'reply all' button.

I now knew exactly what they thought of me. Yes, to them I was 'annoying woman'. Understandably - I had been badgering them since November 2008!

I started wondering if I'd been unreasonable. Should I have given up on this one? If hundreds of Australians have recently caught hepatitis A from semi-dried tomatoes, did that make it OK to sell bad tomatoes that didn't make someone sick? Did I take it too far? And what did I want - if it wasn't replacement product or a refund, what was I after?

I think I've figured it out. I wanted to be treated with respect. I wanted the company to listen seriously to my complaint, rather than taking twelve months to conduct a lackadaisical investigation. I wanted to be assured that a company that prides itself on being organic and ethical, really is organic and ethical.

I am sorely disappointed. I'll certainly never touch their tomatoes again, and I'm still deciding about their other products. But harder for me has been the realisation that they didn't really care. I thought companies were obligated to care. I thought they would want to ensure their customers were healthy and happy.

Like I said in my final email to the director (in addition to 'whoopsie, don't think I was supposed to receive this email ;-)') - I have learned a lot through this process. I stumbled upon the ethics of a company, and it isn't so pretty. And that final, accidental email? What a clincher!

(If you want to know the name of the company, email me. I'd hate for you to get sick and die from rotten tomatoes when I could have prevented it!)

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At 12:57 am, November 15, 2009, Blogger Sandy's Notes said...

Cec, you should publish the company name. True story, what can they do?


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