Trader Joe’s: not all that

April 17, 2014

buyer_bewareI was interested to read recently that Trader Joe’s got high ratings from consumers, or so says Consumer Reports.  The store’s exemplary ratings for service and cleanliness are definitely deserved. But very good marks for perishables runs counter to my own experience.

Trader Joe’s has been around my part of California for a couple decades now, I think, and I’ve shopped there all that time. Stores are fairly small and manageable. Displays are helpful. And the staff is super-helpful.

But.

I’ve had to return perishables purchased at Trader Joe’s more often than I have with items bought at other stores. Half and Half? I returned at least three that had gone sour well before expiration date. Then I stopped buying it there.  Packaged produce, like a trio of colorful bell peppers? I’ve found mold, mildew and cobwebs in packages more than once. Back they went.

We buy frozen chicken breasts and the Trader Joe’s pricing was cheaper than the bags we bought elsewhere. Until we looked at net weight: the bags were also lighter. No deal there. And the quality of the breasts was awful, at least compared to similar breasts we bought at Safeway and the superb frozen chicken breasts sold by Costco.

Packaged goods often bear net weights far lower than their supermarket counterparts. Customers just don’t look at anything but the low price. I say, look more closely.

Quite of a few of Trader Joe’s packaged products don’t identify the country of origin. Labels simply say “Distributed by Trader Joe’s” which to me screams “Product of China but don’t want to tell you that.”

I have to do so much label reading at TJ to get so little information –and have gone back so many times to return spoiled items– that I gave up regularly shopping there. I’ll go once in a while for a product I like, such as packaged cold-case beets or lentils. But I steer clear of produce, meats and dairy. Or anything packaged or canned that doesn’t identify country of origin. Including dog treats.

Trader Joe’s is expanding its empire and more and more customers are excited to have a store in their neighborhood. To them, I say, Buyer Beware. Know exactly what you’re buying. And don’t be surprised if it’s not what you thought it was.

32 comments on “Trader Joe’s: not all that
  1. Ryder Ziebarth says:

    You just confirmed my suspicions. I specifically asked about the dog treats and they swore up and down if it doesn’t have a country of origin, it’s made in the USA. Really?? Never agin after this post, so thanks. I don’t buy organic veggies in the winter-I buy frozen organic. And wait until things are in season- Traders veggies are gross here on the east coast, too. But they make the best darn crackers and Tomato/red-pepper soup-in-a-box and heavenly sweets—chocolate, cookies, etc. But I don’t buy the fresh stuff weather. It’s strictly a dry run.

    • Well, I don’t know for sure, but in today’s world pet food companies are taking care to label country of origin–but not TJ. Which makes me very suspicious. Not taking the risk, not for me, not for Riley. I have also talked to PetSmart about all their ‘made in China’s’ or the treats at the dog cookie bar.

  2. Lisa Froman says:

    We just got a Trader Joe’s here in Baton Rouge, La. I’ve been there a few times. The things I like the best are the frozen veggies. And the lime salsa. And you’re right, the price is cheap on the salsa, but it’s a small jar!

  3. Lori says:

    I just go there for the sesame sticks! 🙂

  4. Doreen McGettigan says:

    The dog treats disappeared off if the shelves of the Trader Joes in my neighborhood a few months ago.
    The staff had no idea why.
    I immediately thought of tainted treats from China.
    That scared me and I have not been back. I miss it but my gut keeps telling me no.

  5. Haralee says:

    Good shopping tips, thanks. I do like their organic leeks and organic packaged Romain lettuce. They don’t seem as dirty as from other stores. I don’t buy their organic cukes or tomatoes because exactly what you have found. There is one store that doesn’t seem to rotate their products well and doesn’t have the volume of customers as the other store I shop so I have been burned there with some half and half and cottage cheese too. I just don’t shop at that location but you are right about having to read and check dates carefully.

    • admin says:

      Yes, and I think overall at all places we are going to need to do that because prices are skyrocketing at all stores.

  6. This is so good to know. I have friends who are trying to get me to shop there…but I would have to go pretty far out of my way…so based on what you are saying…I do not see a reason to do that. Thanks for an honest and informative review.

  7. We buy the wine and I basically live on trader Joes frozen foods when I’m working. AndI like their raw almonds and Greek yogurt. I don’t care for the prepackaged fruits and vegetable at all. Questions about food safety and country of origin have crossed my mind though. Glad you are bringing this up.

  8. Hi Carol….as a fellow Californian I like Trader Joes for speciality items mostly. They do carry some interesting an unusual items that you can’t find anywhere else…oh, and they are close by where I live too. But yeah, I agree that shopping and comparing quality and source is important for any food we buy. Thanks for your honest appraisal. ~Kathy

  9. I buy my produce at Whole Foods, or at the Farmers Market in season. Right now I am eating My Fit Foods….very good!

  10. I’ve only shopped there once and just wasn’t impressed. I feel that they spend to much on appearance and not enough on the quality of the products they sell. I spend about an hour on Sunday morning going through the Sunday paper checking out ads and cutting coupons. I just started this here in SC really just to save money and because it was something else I could fill my long days with. But anyway, I always look at the price per unit in the grocery store it is usually located in much smaller left hand corner. Companies use tricks like bigger bags (a lot less product inside) to lure shoppers into buyer their products. I keep track of what I spend some weeks are better than others but usually about $25.00 a week. I don’t do the “extreme” couponing just on what I would normally buy anyway.

  11. Mary Buchan says:

    We have 3 stores in Charlotte that have only been here for a few years. I buy their organic fruit and veggies for my smoothies. I love the friendly and helpful staff. I am going to be more mindful next time I shop at TJ’s. thanks for the info!

  12. I stock my shelves with Trader Joe’s pantry items that I like: broth, beans, and such. And I love their freezer foods, we’ve never had anything “meh”, it’s all been delicious. But I do not like the pasta at all. Pizza sauce is good and you know what? I had always brushed off the fact that their stuff spoils so fast because everything is organic. There isn’t anything added to stop spoilage, which basically starts happening once the fruit or veggie is picked. (Oh and their candy is to die for.) I had no idea they had things for sale that were made in china. During the summer, I buy my produce locally at farmers stands, but in the winter, fresh produce is limited everywhere. But anyway, I think trips to Trader Joe’s are for meals you are going to make today, if you are buying produce or meat. I also want to share: Peapod’s generic stuff is awesome! I will be checking ALL THE LABELS next time I go to TJ’s. Thanks for this info!

  13. Our local Trader Joe’s is a little too far for me to shop there on a regular basis…it’s a half hour away. We also have a Whole Foods down that way and I am more likely to stop there if I’m in the area. Not labeling country of origin bothers me.

  14. Hmmmm….not my experience at all. Yes, I’ve had to return things that went bad faster than I thought they should but that’s a rarity. And it happens everywhere I shop. It’s a fact of life in the grocery business, especially these days when we’re insisting on having fresh everything at all times even when not in season in our area. I check the pull dates of everything and try to inspect the bagged stuff for bruises. It’s just part of what I do in every store. I love the selection of gluten free (and prominently labeled) food TJs has. Their cheese selection (and prices!) can’t be beat. And their prepared and frozen food hasve a quality and variety I haven’t found anywhere else. I think they do an excellent job of sourcing new products and importing them. As for Whole Foods–yeah, whole paycheck and then it goes into the pocket of a CEO who is against almost everything I believe in.

  15. Carol Graham says:

    Do you think it may be that particular store? I shop Trader’s and haven’t had any problem in years.

    Carol @ Battered Hope

  16. Cathy Ezell says:

    Our first store is opening up near us next year. I was very excited but not after reading this article & the comments. So glad I read them!

  17. Kay Lynn says:

    I am a big Trader Joe’s fan but as with all stores you have to read labels and be selective. I love that their eggs are all cage-free (at least here in CA).

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