Aldi workers have exposed the cracks in the supermarket favourite’s “If you wouldn’t buy it, don’t sell it” rule, as a disturbing trend emerges of mouldy and rotten mandarins left out for sale across suburban Sydney stores.
Over six weeks, I visited six Aldi stores across the city’s inner-western, inner-southern and southwestern suburbs a total of 14 times.
Each visit found loose Australian Imperial mandarins for sale at full price, with mandarins in each batch in various states of decay, from slightly mouldy to almost completely rotten.
Some stores were visited over repeated days, with the mouldy and rotting culprits still available for sale, even after the grocery giant had been notified of the issue.
Aldi won the Canstar Blue 5-star award for most satisfied customers for Supermarket Fruits and Vegetables in 2022 and won the Canstar Blue awards for Most Satisfied Shoppers from 2014 to 2016 and 2018 to 2021.
And according to Aldi’s website, it showcases Australia’s local and best produce.
“Fresh fruit takes on a whole new meaning at Aldi, with only the best produce in store for our customers,” the website states.
I reached out to Aldi’s press office and PR representatives twice over the past six weeks to inquire about the company’s fresh produce training for staff, its commitment to Aussie farmers and for comment on the rotten citrus being sold.
Aldi declined to comment on both occasions, leaving me to ponder the “whole new meaning” of the mouldy and rotten fruit myself.
Stan*, a store attendant who has worked at Aldi in Sydney’s inner and southwest “on and off over a couple of years”, works in a store that sold rotten mandarins.
He said when he was trained, Aldi had a guiding rule or principle that workers were taught to use when determining if produce was fit for sale.
“If you wouldn’t buy it, don’t put it out … you shouldn’t sell it, it’s how it should be …” Stan explained.
He said that sometimes, produce was stored incorrectly, which could cause food to go off more quickly.
“Sometimes you get a bad batch, and you don’t notice it all the time. I know it’s not right … I’ll make a judgement call myself personally. If I think it’s cr*p, then it’s cr*p,” he said.
Stan said there were dates on most of the produce, including open boxes of fruit and vegetables, however, these were not visible on the mandarin boxes in the stores I visited.
Other Aldi workers also reiterated the “if you wouldn’t buy it, don’t sell it” rule, and stated they do receive some fresh produce training.
“We would generally do five days learning on an iPad instore … watching videos, answering questions, so you have the basic understanding,” said one store attendant.
All store attendants I spoke to stated that store managers were responsible for fresh produce and rotating fruit and vegetables.
Aldi store manager Taylor* has worked with the chain in the Greater Sydney region for almost a decade, and said “technically” all staff were provided with food quality training.
“They’ve moved from the ‘Would I buy it?’ rule to being a bit more in-depth … trying to avoid the bad quality,” Taylor said.
Taylor added that Aldi staff just finished an online quarterly training module at the end of June, with some modules being refreshers while others were more comprehensive, and that managers usually oversaw the fresh produce areas, with that practice stemming from the old days when they had to check the orders for quality and see what was selling well.
“I know some of the quality that comes through to stores is not always the greatest. With Aldi’s money-saving methods of the past, they would get less quality produce … but as they’ve grown more and more in business, they’re looking more and more to invest in higher quality produce,” Taylor said.
High quality local produce is what struggling Aussie farmer Nicky Alexander of Fords Farm in Laughtondale, in the Lower Hawkesbury, prides herself in producing.
The pick-your-own citrus farmer grows mandarins, oranges, lemons, cumquats and limes on her 16-hectare property.
The family-run business has taken some hard knocks over the past year, which have been common to many farmers in the local area.
Last week, NSW Premier Chris Minns stepped in to halt Hawkesbury Council’s proposed visitor restrictions for pick-your-own farms, which farmers say is bureaucratic overreach.
“We’ve been hit from every side,” Ms Alexander said.
“We had a really bad crop due to the floods … The DPI (Department of Primary Industry) are going to come and destroy our beehives, because they reckon they have Varroa Mite.”
Operating for 60 years and originally selling produce in the wider marketplace, the business has been working as a pick-your-own farm for two decades, drawing families back annually to gather their own fresh goods.
Ms Alexander said freshness and quality were the driving forces that people kept coming back for more.
“Our fruit is just so good … I can say that because we’ve had customers coming to us for 22 years, every year,” she said.
While the Citrus Australia website states that mandarins are in season and available from April to October, Ms Alexander said Imperial mandarins began in early May, with the season now over.
“It starts in Queensland, then the season starts here in NSW about three weeks later and goes down the south coast of Australia … they pick them when they are green and they gas them for colour, so the fruit inside is not ripe … then they’ve been stored by the supermarket …” she said.
Ms Alexander said mandarins can be stored in the fridge for two or three weeks, but the process of getting the fruit from the farm to the consumer on supermarket shelves was lengthy.
“They are kept in cold storage for a week or two, then they go onto the truck … to the family market or veggie man, who store them in the back room for a week. Then you bring them out in the open, you put them on the shelves, and they go rotten,” Ms Alexander said.
Aldi’s website states they hold a commitment to supporting the farmers who grow their produce and always source from Australian growers when they can.
“Not only does this support local farmers, but the taste and quality can’t be beaten. It’s a win-win for everyone,” states the Aldi website.
It doesn’t feel like a win-win for Ms Alexander, who has poured her life into producing quality Australian citrus.
“This is a reflection on the grower who has put the time and effort into growing it … it’s stored, and it’s allowed to go rotten.”
Citrus Australia was also contacted for comment.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Caroline Przibilla is a freelance journalist and producer, working across print, TV and the political arena