/ Food & Drink

Do you shop for fruit and veg online?

Inspired by a community member, I’m wondering whether not being able to pick your own fruit and veg might put you off online grocery shopping.

Recently, we were asked about your rights to reject poor quality fruit and veg from an online grocery delivery.

It’s an interesting one, and the answer is that they actually count as a faulty product. Under the Consumer Rights Act, you have 30 days to return a faulty product for a full refund, after that time you will need to give the retailer that sold it to you an opportunity to repair or replace it.

But the 30-day period is shorter for perishable goods, such as food, and will be determined by how long it’s reasonable to have expected it to last. For example, milk would be expected to last until its use-by date, as long as it’s stored correctly.

If you were unfortunate enough to have eaten the dodgy or rotten food and it caused you significant harm, you cold also claim for damages courtesy of the Consumer Protection Act.

The question also got us thinking: does not picking your own fruit and veg put you off online grocery shopping?

See how the nation’s supermarkets compare

Carrot connotations

I don’t mind it with items that come in standard sizes, such as apples and cabbages. What does drive me to distraction is carrots.

A while ago I ordered three carrots. When they arrived they were the smallest, saddest looking things which barely did us for one meal.

The next week I ordered six… which turned out to be significantly bigger! We dined on them for a week.

And then there was the time I was sent half a carrot. Who picks half a carrot for someone’s shopping?

Worth the weight?

The answer to this dilemma is to order by weight. Although, trying to get everything ordered can be a task in itself, especially if you’re in a rush, so checking to see what weight you actually need isn’t always practical. 

That’s how a friend of mine ended up with 30 bananas in one of her deliveries. 

More than half of my team here at Which? say not being able to pick your own fruit and veg puts them off ordering online. Is that how you feel? Or are we a team of people particularly choosey with our fruit and veg?

What was the worst shopping mix up you’ve had? Can anyone beat my friend’s 30 bananas?

Comments

I like to inspect fruit, veg, fish and meat before purchase, and not being able to do so is one thing that puts me off online shopping. If I’m going to use these products soon I’m not worried about the use by date but if they will be stored for the days I look for longer-dated products. Depending on what I have planned I may choose large or small veg. Some fruit and veg have to be examined for signs of rough handling that may affect their storage life.

Having decided to live within reasonably easy access of a couple of supermarkets I will carry on doing my own shopping for the foreseeable future.

I would agree. I have not been tempted to shop for groceries on line though I have seen the process first hand at a relative’s house. Food is something I am careful not to waste and part of that is choosing good products, with a list. Some tins and packets are predictable but since I am going shopping for perishables anyway, they go in the trolley. Food is immediate and it’s not the same viewed on a computer screen. Home delivery might be a godsend for those with mobility problems and, I suppose, those too busy to face the delays and the time needed to shop.

JoyAkwBut says:
11 July 2019

I live on my own, on the 3rd floor of an apartment block, work full time and I don’t drive … so online shopping has really helped me! I used to be one of those shoppers (and still am if I visit an actual store) that would dig out the latest date that I could find, for each product that I intended to purchase!

I shop with Sainsbury’s and have been using their online services for many years now. Generally speaking 8/10 shops I don’t have any complaints for … but sometimes you will be sent items with a short expiry date – which is usually with regards to fruit and vegetables. Occasionally you may receive them damaged (which includes heavily bruised or rotten items). The only items I refuse to purchase online are bananas – as they always came packed with heavier items placed on top of them, so within a day or so, they would all turn brown.

I have set my own rule that if I receive 3 items that are short expiry or damaged, (also depending on their value) then I will let it pass. However, 4 or more items will result with a call to their customer services department. When ever I have called to complain, the Sainsbury’s customer service person is always apologetic, understanding & polite. They take down the details (which they then report to your local store manager) and offer you your money back or e-vouchers for the value of the products … I choose the latter as the majority of my shopping is done with them.

So for those that haven’t tried it, I would encourage you to … as I’m normally a fussy shopper, but I have found this service to be invaluable & convenient! 😉

I also like to choose my fruit and veg so buy very little online. We eat most of our spuds jacketed so they have to be the right size with good skins.

I envisage it won’t be long before you will be able to see and choose actual products online just as you would in the supermarket.

We haven’t had any problems with apples, celery, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes or carrots so carry on ordering those on-line from Sainsbury’s with the other shopping. The problems have always been with soft fruit so after giving them an ample opportunity to get it right we no longer buy it on-line and prefer to walk to M&S for such produce.

The problems seemed to split roughly equally between damaged items, inferior produce which we would have avoided if we could have seen it, and under- or over-ripeness. If the weather is right and we fancy some strawberries [for example] we want to eat them today, not on Sunday, but Sainsbury’s seemed to make a point of always sending the longest-dated stock; there was no way of specifying the preferred date. But they did it the other way round with bananas and supplied over-ripe fruits that had to be eaten virtually immediately.

In M&S we can choose from a range of ripeness states to get strawberries or bananas to suit the timescale over which we can store them and eat them. Not only that, their produce is superior in grade and quality, and I guess that if the fruit offered by the importers is not up to standard they don’t buy it, whereas Sainsbury’s presumably have to take what is offered regardless of whether it is satisfactory and they merely adjust the price with the importer and possibly at the point of sale.

I am happy to buy unripe fruit, which is less likely to be damaged in the shop and during the trip home. This usually works well.

I am not keen on shops selling ‘perfectly ripe’ fruit that needs to be cocooned in plastic to avoid damage. We have criticised the use of single-use plastics for water bottles and other products sold in supermarkets, but I suggest that plastic-cocooned fruit is something we could and should live without.

I think we need to consider the best way of selling soft fruit where the consumer eats the skin, like strawberries, grapes, plums and peaches.

Currantly, in supermarkets and other self-service outlets, this produce tends to be packed in punnets, bags, or fibre trays with a hard plastic shell lid, to provide a given weight or quantity which cannot then be handled by shoppers. Harder fruit like apples, and fruit with skin which is peeled off before being eaten [like oranges and bananas], is sold in both packed and loose form.Looking at the way in which people pick over the apples to select their choice I feel that some protection is required and that selling soft fruit loose on open display would be wrong.

Packaging gives the opportunity to label the produce to show its origin and its display or use by date. I feel that the packaging reduces waste and stock losses and, so far as I am aware, is all recyclable except the thin film that covers a punnet or the polythene bag that encloses the plums or grapes. In the environmental balance, packaging might actually be the best solution. There could, of course, have been substantial spoilage, waste and losses at the packing plant so the overall waste problem has not been resolved but that also is capable of reprocessing.

Food safety and hygiene considerations also arise and on balance I am grapeful for the protection that is provided by packaging.

For an alternative type of shop we can go to the street market and buy fruit from a stall where the greengrocer selects what we will have and transfers it by hand from the transport box, tray or crate into a paper bag which then goes into a shopping bag and hopefully survives the journey home.

Because of the relentless development of the supermarkets in the UK, unlike on the continent where many towns and cities have open markets with lots of sole traders, the vast bulk of our population [and I am not referring to the obesity problem here] do not have access to any other source of fruit and vegetables than supermarkets or chain shops where pre-packaging is the norm. A massive reversal of shopping practices is needed if we are to return to the days of unpackaged fruit.

The fundamental problem is we generate far too much throw-away plastic waste. If course it has its advantages, but I’d suggest these are far outweighed by the damage these materials do to the planet.

We never had such packaging and we all survived. Our habits may need to change.

Cellophane is a friendly material I believe and can be made impermeable to gas. Why should this not be used instead of plastic film and polythene bags?

These discussions always lead me to reflect on the perfection of the eggshell in both form and function as the protection of a delicate and fragile content. If we could only replicate that in transparent form we might be getting somewhere. Are we looking in the wrong direction?

I suggest that we need to look more towards natural materials for packaging unless the synthetic alternatives offer a more sustainable and environmentally satisfactory alternative.

It’s worth looking at why manufacturers have moved towards using the single-use plastics that have been causing increasing problems for the past few decades. These are cheap and strong and most are safe in contact with food. There were concerns about with earlier types of cling film in contact with fatty food and gradual release of BPA from polycarbonate, but we are better able to understand the risks. What we may think of as cellophane and biodegradable is probably not. Here is a non-technical explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Abhp0oFjrVk

Is anyone game for introducing legislation to ban certain kinds of packaging when a better alternative exists? One example would be to move away from eggs sold in plastic packaging and go back to the cardboard egg boxes that have been used for years.

I was not aware that eggs were sold in plastic packaging. The only ones we get come in soft cardboard boxes of six. Perhaps my eyes are programmed not to notice things we would not have. The boxes seem to be quite strong and are clearly adequate for stacking. A similar packaging might be suitable for all manner of other products – including soft fruit. The egg boxes are probably made from low grade [and previously recycled] paper and cardboard waste which is another advantage.

Single-use plastic eggs boxes have been around for a while, John. They can be transparent plastic or foam plastic. I’m not sure which companies use them but like bottled water and single-use plastic bags they are on my ‘Don’t Buy’ list. I have assumed the same about the source of material for traditional eggs boxes and hope they are not virgin paper with grey colour added. 🙁

There seems to be absolutely no good reason to continue using plastic for egg boxes and this should be stopped as a matter of urgency since good alternatives are immediately available. I think this is something Which? should initiate on behalf of us all by writing to all the retailers. We could help by naming the shops concerned.

Our eggs come in green boxes so obviously some dyeing of the pulp is carried out. Is that really necessary? I suppose so if it provides a suitable background for the printed information and avoids the need to stick a label on the box.

It may be that plastic packaging offers better protection (foam plastic) or helps promote sales (no need to open the packet to inspect the integrity of each egg). It would be easy to explore and assess these benefits, but if we are to tackle plastic waste then going back to traditional packaging seems the right way to go.

If writing to retailers had little effect, would you support a ban on use of plastics for packaging eggs or any other products, John?

Yes, I certainly would. Wherever there is a suitable alternative it should be used. I, and no doubt many others, avoid buying things wrapped in unnecessary plastic but that does not send a strong enough signal to manufacturers and retailers.

In the olden days the eggs were on a large tray in the shop and were given to us in a paper bag. We didn’t break them on the walk home. (as John says, natural egg packaging is well-engineered).

I cannot see any alternative way forward if we are going to make real progress. Egg boxes seem easy but meat and soft fruit are more of a challenge since the life can be significantly extended by modern packaging methods.

I’m not sure that eggs are as well engineered as they are cracked up to be and my nomination for good natural design is the banana. Some supermarkets still put them in plastic bags. 🙁

Many people use the butchers and green grocers (where they exist), or the market, for meat and soft fruit – sold without excess packaging We all used to live this way. Many supermarkets have counters for fresh meat, fish, pastries, deli, fruit and veg that is passed to you with minimal packaging. Convenience packaging is not essential – far from it.

Plastic trays and film are a cheap way to contain products within a protective atmosphere to give them a longer shelf and fridge life. But, I suggest, that is not the only way; aluminium containers and organic film may do the same job. The drive needs to be to get the retailers to work with their suppliers to look at alternative packaging materials where packaging is essential.

“Egg boxes seem easy”“. Of course, sell eggs from open trays and take your card egg box with you to refill. So why do we still have pre-packed eggs? Because we talk, but don’t act. Little steps can cover long distances if we keep moving.

I have seen people opening egg boxes to check the contents and sometimes swapping eggs from one box to another. I have never found a cracked egg in a cardboard egg box nor an egg that I didn’t like the look of.

M&S (well mine, anyway) check the contents of egg boxes at the till as a routine.

Cellophane is not only biodegradable but compostable. It can be coated with an organic material, I believe, to make it impervious to water vapour.The link above says this, but also describes plastic-coated cellulose which is not biodegradable. That was not what I was suggesting.

We have, I think, to approach this problem with a positive “how can we” approach. We cannot continue polluting the planet with single use plastics, so we must make every effort to abolish them from use. We need, therefore, to find ways to make this happen.

We may increase some food waste slightly with changes in packaging, have shorter shelf life maybe, but we can get round those issues. What we cannot do is recover all the waste that gets chucked away unnecessarily and that cannot be sensibly recycled.

Incidentally M&S use cardboard egg boxes. However, each one gets thrown away. I could just as easily take my own egg box and refill it.

I would feel happier if the egg boxes were taken back to the retailer and they refilled them mechanically instead of having customers fiddling about selecting the contents. There would need to be an omelette pan handy.

Malcolm – True cellophane is not recyclable and its manufacture uses a carbon disulphide, a toxic and volatile solvent. I do not know to what extent it is still used. What is often referred to as cellophane film may contain polypropylene or polylactic acid. It would be interesting to know how much true cellophane is used in packaging but only the manufacturers will know.

Would you support manufacturers being told that they must use (or avoid) particular materials for packaging, based on our current state of knowledge of their suitability and environmental impact of disposal?

What I am looking for is first,as big a reduction in unnecessary packaging as possible; where required, there are alternatives such as customer containers. Second, where packaging is essential I’d like to see it made from truly re-usable materials such as aluminium, glass, or ones that will not damage the environment when discarded such as organic materials. Energy to recycle the materials can be replaced; we can’t recover stuff that is contaminating the oceans and the ground.

I accept that this may add a little cost to some vulnerable items, through packaging prices, and a little change in habits to keep ourselves supplied with fresh food. But if we really are concerned to stop damaging the planet and its life then we must surely be prepared to bite the bullet.

At the moment we seem to be doing nothing, as a consumer group, except talk about it. That’s a good way to avoid action. There are changes we could make straight away, if only we made the effort. How bad must it get before we act?

The action we should take, therefore, is to press for a reduction in packaging and to prohibit the use of materials that will cause environmental damage when discarded. Recycling plastics, for example, is generally a short term process as they degrade and can only be used in inferior form or in unnecessary applications before, once again, being chucked in the waste stream (or ocean).

Sue Turner says:
13 July 2019

I shop regularly with Ocado and if you use their app you can report bruised or damaged items very easily. Yesterday, I reported that the swede was dark brown inside and one of the bananas was badly bruised/damaged. You get an instant email confirmation and a refund within a few days. Although only one of the bananas was poor quality they will probably refund the amount for the whole bunch. Cannot fault Ocado, so easy to get a refund for poor quality fruit and vegetables.

I regularly shop at Ocado, and have never had any problems about getting a refund. I simply phone them up and explain the problem, and they refund me. Obviously if I still need that item then I have to buy it elsewhere, this applies to anything in my basket.

Has anyone been online to Ocado in the last few days?

They have changed the layout on the product pages so everything is big and spread out. Other info and ads have been placed strategically down the page making it harder to see the information you really want to see?

As it will take longer to see product information you do want to see, it will leave less time for browsing other sections so I don’t see the point.

I really don’t like it.

Their website was the best out of all the supermarkets, so why on earth would they change it?

What does anyone else think?

I have not used it but if enough people complain the previous design may be restored. I don’t like the way the left sidebar jumps around.

I have already let them know what I think of it.

Ocado has gone back to the old version, but probably not for long unfortunately. 😞

At least you have tried, but why would they go back to the previous version and change again – apart from the common desire for change, whatever the consequences?

It might have just been a trial run to gauge customer reactions. They have replied that my comments have been passed on to the relevant team as they will want to know their customers thoughts on the changes made.

If I could produce a picture I would give you a coconut, Alfa.

You need to add emojis to your browser John. 🥥

John – I suggest you bookmark this page if you might feel the need for the odd emoji: https://emojipedia.org

Thank you both for your suggestions, but no thanks – I can access emoji’s if I really want them but I don’t like using them [although I have done so occasionally in the past].

I don’t think I have ever bookmarked anything either – I am lazy so I write and do 99% of everything from memory and rarely look anything up.

Venetia Caine says:
10 September 2019

I want to know the source of my fruit and veg. I try to buy British, not through any great sense of patriotism, but because I want to reduce the air (or indeed other) miles they’ve travelled. But when I last checked, they don’t say where the the produce comes from online. Some time back I took this up with Waitrose, and they explained that they could not be consistent enough about this to be able to give the information.