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Is It Legal to Open Bags, Eat Food in Stores?

What is grocery store shoplifting, exactly? The answer is obvious if someone takes something without paying for it, and leaves the store knowing they didn't pay. But what about everything in between?

It's not uncommon to see a customer tear open a bag of chips to munch on while shopping, nab a couple of grapes from a bunch, or sample a jelly bean or two from the bulk foods section. Most of the time, store workers may not even bat an eye or give this a second thought.

But is it actually legal?

Not Necessarily Shoplifting

It may seem like opening bags and snacking while you shop may be akin to shoplifting. But in general, shoplifting requires two elements:

  1. Taking possession of an item being offered for sale, and
  2. The intent to permanently deprive the item's rightful owner (the grocery store, in this case), without paying for it.

In other words, you need to have committed the act of taking the item and have the intention of evading the checkout counter in order to be found guilty of shoplifting, according to the law.

It doesn't always work that way in real life, however. Shopkeepers generally have discretion (called the shopkeeper's privilege) when it comes to detaining someone for suspected shoplifting. And because of that, the determination can fall into a legal gray area.

The Type of Food Consumed Can Matter

The key is whether the shopper eventually pays (or intended to pay) for her already-consumed goods. The type of food consumed can also matter.

Something sold at a fixed price, like a bag of chips, may be more acceptable. So a customer who snacks while shopping, but eventually pays for it at the checkout, likely won't have to deal with any legal consequences.

However, items that are priced by weight -- like produce, candies, and dried goods, for example -- may pose more of a concern. You're legally obligated to pay for however much you took from the store. So if you don't pay for what you've already eaten, then technically you've stolen it.

Still, if no store employee, loss-prevention officer, or cashier calls you out on your unauthorized (and unpaid-for) snacking, you probably won't be prosecuted. You'll just have to deal with the guilt of knowing what you've done.

As for potentially toxic pesticides on that piece of fruit you just popped in your mouth: That's a whole 'nother issue.

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