/ Shopping

Supermarket deliveries: have you been given items with expiring use-by dates?

Has your supermarket delivery arrived with fresh products approaching their use-by/best before date within just a day or two? If so, we’d like to hear from you.

Online supermarket orders have surged for obvious reasons throughout the pandemic – hundreds of you came to Which? Conversation in April last year to report difficulties securing a slot for your grocery shopping.

Fortunately the situation has eased considerably since then, but with online deliveries still preferred by many as restrictions gradually ease, it can be frustrating to receive your order only to find that half the items are approaching their best before/use-by date extremely quickly.

Short shelf lives

We know that the Twitter user above is far from alone, with many disgruntled customers sharing photos of items with short best before dates on social media.

I’ve heard from Which? staff the last few days who have had the same issue – some told me they had to re-think their entire week’s shop due to so many fresh items expiring in such a short space of time.

Over to you

So the question is: has this happened to you? I’m especially keen to here which items are expiring, how soon you have to use them, and which supermarket you ordered from.

Do you think supermarkets should do more to let you know which items are approaching their use-by date before you order? And are there any stores that are doing a good job?

Let me know your experiences in the comments.

Comments

When people go to a supermarket for their groceries they sometimes have little choice over which store they can use without making a long journey. With on-line ordering people can choose whichever supermarket delivers to their postcode and there does seem to be a preference for ordering from Sainsbury’s. It is therefor possible that Sainsbury’s has increased its market share and is struggling, first to get enough stock to satisfy demand, and second to cope with the volume of orders within their logistics capacity. It would be interesting to know whether or not that is the case; they certainly seemed to be able to expand their delivery resources rapidly at the beginning of the lockdowns although things were a bit haphazard in the early days.

It would also be interesting to know how shoppers who previously were regular customers with Aldi and Lidl but have now switched to one of the big supermarkets that deliver feel about the delivery arrangements, and whether or not the higher prices are compensated for by the wider choice of products, and the different sizes, qualities, varieties and brands within products, available from the majors.

Among the people I know I have heard more complaints about Sainsburys over the problems we have discussed but on the other hand they have done very well at providing slots for those who have avoided shopping on account of age or health issues.

Yes, that is my experience also among family and friends.

I think the wide choice and competition from having a number of different grocers pitching for the same market shows what a good decision the CMA made in blocking the proposed merger between Sainsbury’s and ASDA.

The discounters Aldi and Lidl have lost market share because they have not been able to offer on-line ordering and deliveries but they seem to be regaining it by opening many more new stores to fill in the gaps in their coverage whereas the majors now have surplus store capacity.

I agree about the blocking of the merger, John. That would have resulted in another supermarket the size of Tesco and a large market share is not necessarily good for consumers.

Aldi and Lidl may have lost out on deliveries but I believe they will continue to grow. Although they are based in Germany they have been pushing British produce and have over the years expanded their range of familiar brands. I am disappointed that Lidl has announced a loyalty scheme because that will be paid for by higher prices for all customers, as with the bigger supermarkets.

A year ago I was struggling to find delivery/collection slots but here and elsewhere the supermarkets have done a good job in meeting demand.

Jim says:
25 April 2021

Not so for us. We have been regular shoppers at our local Sainsbury’s for over 20 years, but found it impossible to get any slots. We had no such problems with Tesco’s, however, where we only shop very rarely, once a year if that. We did get a slot with Sainsbury’s, which we mainly paid for using two Nectar card vouchers. Because the eventual cost was slightly lower than the value of the two vouchers, both vouchers were cancelled, the money taken from our account, and Sainsbury’s vouchers given back. We rejected these, and after complaining by email to the CEO, we eventually got most of the Nectar points returned. This left a very bad taste, and we will not be using Sainsbury’s again. Tesco’s, however, have been excellent.

Val says:
25 April 2021

They wouldn’t let me register in first lockdown even though over 70. Asda were great.

We are 75+ and are not very loyal on supermarkets. We like Waitrose but is not cheap and trnd to switch between Morrison’s and Aldi. Come lockdown the only supermarkets we could get deliveries from were Morrison’s and Iceland the latter being free if the order is in excess of £30 I think.
We quickly got fed up with Morrison’s with too many replacements and out of stock. We did a click and collect at Sainsbury that worked well ( only one substitution Seville oranges instead of ordinary And refunded). We piggy backed on daughters Tesco orders with some short dated issues.
Frankly we got fed up with the whole experience and elected to brave the supermarkets at off peak times – largely Aldi and Morrison’s.

I shop online with Waitrose. If they can only supply something fresh that runs out on the day of delivery or the next day they will not charge me for it. If I don’t want it they will take it away.

Miffed of Surrey says:
24 April 2021

I have said many a time to customer services from Waitrose on line shopping that if humans could eat a week’s supply of food in a day & then not eat again for a week, then their deliveries would be fine. As it is, I feel I’m paying for them to deliver food to go in my bin, so have of course stopped ordering. Ocado are better as you get your receipt by email BEFORE the delivery & it lists all the expiry dates. However, it is still necessary but certainly not ideal & I often feel quite upset, that I have to minimise ordering fresh fruit & veg in particular.
Being classified as vulnerable & not going out to the shops to choose my own food I find is very depressing & I do feel hard done by & quite hurt by the standard of food dumped on me by some supermarkets sometimes. I kept trying with the one I first mentioned, thinking I was just unlucky that time but no, it was every time.

J .Uttley says:
24 April 2021

However did we manage when there was no dates on food ?,I think having use by dates on food has contributed to all the food wastage in the world today ,what’s wrong with using your nose for smell ,if it smells bad ,don’t eat it !!!.j

Anything that smells off should not be eaten but food that is past its ‘use by’ date and smells OK can be unsafe to eat. It’s best to use or cook food by the ‘use by’ dates. Careful planning should avoid wastage.

‘Best before’ dates can be ignored as long as the food looks and smells OK. They relate to quality rather than safety.

I am finding that overall fresh food goods from Sainsbury (can happen with Waitrose if we use them) have extremely short use by dates and, if you are shopping for a week’s groceries, this is not on unless the item can be frozen, usually not if sliced beef, ham etc. We are both late 70s and prefer deliveries to shopping in store. I am not good at walking, especially with a shopping trolley, so my husband will go. Presently we use the delivery service as I have had a very recent operation and could not shop myself. It is hopeless if I have sliced beef say, to have to use it the next day or the day after. Things like shepherd’s pie and cottage pie should have longer dates as we do not wish to use them there and then. Admittedly some of that type of item can be frozen and cooked from frozen which is a help. But you have to remember that this could mean a longer cooking time or a defrost. I wonder sometimes whether the pickers have such tight deadlines they cannot do much more than pick what’s the first thing they see.

If items such a salmon mousse or similar or other fish items are delivered, with short use by dates this is no good as they do not keep well.

I have no idea what can be done about this apart from changing orders to frozen or similar food so you can be fairly sure it will keep.

It is also no use looking at the dates on delivery and rejecting any not suitable as the drivers have a short time scale and need to get on and, also my husband just gets things in quickly! An, we’d have no food!

Geraldine – To some extent you have answered your own question when you wrote that you had “no idea what can be done about this apart from changing orders to frozen or similar food so you can be fairly sure it will keep”. As this Conversation shows, you are not alone in these concerns.

With the best will in the world, on-line food shopping will never be as satisfactory as going into a store and making your selections from what you can see on the shelves or in the chiller cabinets, but there are ways in which people can make the best of the situation. Unfortunately the stores do not know when people wish to eat what they order and they cannot reserve stock which has been ordered to make sure it has a long enough use-by date.

Use-by dates always err on the side of caution and J. Uttley [in a comment above yours] has suggested that people could use their years of experience to judge when things are still fit for eating.

If you like shepherd’s pie and cottage pie and don’t have the time for defrosting, or the extra cooking time if it can be cooked from frozen, you could consider ordering such ready meals from one of the delivery companies that advertise quite extensively these days and supply prepared meals that can be kept in a cupboard for up to six months. I expect some are suitable for microwave cooking in minutes if you are suitably equipped. Building up a small stock of such food would tide you over when your supermarket delivery items are still in the freezer or have gone out of date.

When planning your order it is best not to include too much fresh cooked meat or seafood items unless you are sure you will be able to consume them quickly. There are canned options for many of these products although I accept they do not always appeal and could be more expensive. You might find there is a local butcher or fishmonger who will deliver your interim requirements.

I am hopeful that as things gradually return to normal more people will be shopping in store again and more delivery slots will become available for those who have to rely on deliveries. This would enable people to have a delivery every week with a better chance of all the food being safe to consume when you wish to, but you then have to look out for any minimum order values to avoid paying a high delivery charge.

John – How can you tell if food is safe to eat by looking at it and smelling it? Certain bacteria can cause food poisoning, either by infection or as a result of toxic substances they excrete. Sometimes this causes the food to smell ‘off’ but not always, hence the official advice to pay attention to the date. In our parents’ day we did not buy much chilled processed food, or it contained chemical preservatives to prevent food poisoning (e.g. sausages)

I am very much in favour of removing best before dates on fresh fruit and veg, which can result in a great deal of food waste.

Wavechange – You can’t and I haven’t said you could. I merely referenced a comment by another contributor who said if it smells bad don’t eat it and I would endorse that. But with experience you get to know that something just past its use by date [one or two days maximum] could still be safe to cook and eat. I agree that the absence of mould and the lack of a smell are not indicators of safe food.

When I was young my mother went shopping almost every day for a basket of shopping and the small refrigerator was rarely full. When I stayed with my aunt she cooked a three course lunch served at one o’clock every day for five adults and three children and had no fridge and there were no supermarkets either.

John – When we were young there was far less prepared food on sale than what our supermarkets offer today. Modern supermarkets and delicatessens work well if staff comply with rules and the main cause of food poisoning is still undercooked food. We still hear of restaurants being responsible for local food poisoning outbreaks because food has not been stored properly or kept too long. It’s one of the reasons why food hygiene inspectors regard good management and record keeping as being as important as cleanliness.

Our contributor J .Uttley mentioned the importance of checking food for smell but failed to point out that food can be hazardous if it smells OK.

I don’t watch many TV cooking programmes but the amount of handling prissy food gets puts me right off and it is little wonder you could get food poisoning.

I try to avoid them because I have an allergy to celebrities. If the food is cooked after handling it should be OK. I certainly would not want to eat uncooked food that had been handled a lot. No vegetables carefully crafted to look like flowers for me, thank you. 

Donald Stanley says:
24 April 2021

As my wife and I are both elderly and have health problems Sainsbury’s have been very good about making weekly deliveries of groceries within the one hour slots chosen by us. The ‘Best before’ date has never been passed but has often fallen within the week before the next delivery is due but as we store everything in either a refrigerator or deep freeze I’m not too worried. Their own brand products are excellent and good value for money.

(IF YOU QUOTE THESE COMMENTS PLEASE OMIT MY NAME.)

J Foster says:
24 April 2021

I’ve shopped on-line with Sainsbury’s for years, as has a relative. On the whole we are happy with the service and the products, but recently we have both had problems with use by dates. They are not as reliable as they used to be about warnings for short life products, and a few weeks ago I had a piece of meat delivered that was several days over its date. When I rang up Sainsbury’s not only refunded the price of that meat, but all the meat in my order, plus £5 compensation. They are generally very good like that.
What did worry me, however, was that on another occasion when I insisted on checking the dates on the doorstep, the driver told me that the store was trying to reduce waste. Commendable in itself, but not if that means dumping elderly goods onto unsuspecting customers. If we’re to shop for a week at a time, which the current shortage of, and restrictions on, delivery slots forces us to do, aren’t we entitled to expect that products will last a week? Except, of course, for the few things that never would, such as asparagus.

I use Ocado exactly for this reason as they provide a minimum shelf life on every product so you can plan your weekly meals. Having tried Sainsburys & Tescos in the past with a weeks worth of dinners expiring in 2 days! There online site & app are also the most user friendly.

By all means complain about short-dated food but perhaps it is worth looking at how to make food last until the next delivery and perhaps choosing foods that will keep longer.

Some fruit such as apples and oranges will stay in good condition after the ‘Best before’ date and buying ‘ripen at home’ fruit will take days before it is even ready to eat. Soft fruit has to be eaten soon after purchase but plenty of fruit will keep.

Most vegetables will keep well in the fridge if transferred to paper bags or if the plastic bag is opened to allow moisture to escape. An iceberg lettuce will keep much longer than bags of salad leaves.

It’s worth setting the fridge so that it is as cold as possible without freezing any of the contents.

Personally, I do not pay much attention to use by dates, but I do throw uneaten food away (into the recycling bin) if it has gone off.

I’m only relaying official advice, Derek: https://www.food.gov.uk/safety-hygiene/best-before-and-use-by-dates There is a belief that the ‘sniff test’ will tell whether food is safe to eat but food does not need to smell off to cause food poisoning. Usually cooking food will make it safe to eat but not always.

Kathryn Baysdon says:
24 April 2021

I had several packs of fruit which were due to expire within a day of delivery a year ago. I phoned Tesco’s to complain and they refunded me for all of them. I’ve complained about once or twice a year to Tesco about an online shopping item and always found them brilliant at refunds.

How to tell if your eggs have gone off.

1. Gently drop your egg into a bowl of cold water
2. If it’s very fresh, it will sink to the bottom and lie on its side.
3. If the egg is fresh but nearing expiration, it will sink to the bottom of the bowl and sit upright
4. If the egg is not fresh, it will simply float.

To read the science behind this, see: independent.co.uk – How to tell if your eggs have gone off.

I still prefer the to follow the expiry date, but the above may be a useful guide when in doubt,.

That’s really useful information Beryl. Many thanks. I suppose as the egg deteriorates gasses build up inside.

Egg shells are porous and as moisture is lost and air will enter, so the air sac at the blunt end of the egg will increase in size. This makes the egg more buoyant.

The date on eggs is not a ‘use by’ date but if you eat soft-boiled eggs it’s best not to keep them much longer. It is legal for farmers to sell eggs without any date marking. Presumably the hens are not fitted with printing machinery.

In days gone by eggs were stored for months in water glass (a solution of sodium silicate), which blocks the pores in the eggshells reduces the amount of oxygen entering.

Miffed of Surrey says:
24 April 2021

Yes but when fresh fruit & veg arrives & not only is the expiry date extremely short but the veg is already going off, e.g., yellow broccoli, a melon that looks as if it’s been used to play football with for several days & the dents & severe bruises are already rotting with the first bits of mould. Also mould on fruit, rotten tomatoes, I draw the line!!! It is not safe to eat fish past the use by date in particular but I wouldn’t eat meat either.

This is a Marks & Spencer white cabbage I got from Ocado last week with a use-by date of 3 days:

I have always thought fruit and veg in Marks & Spencer was always quite good quality and have never seen anything this bad in their stores. In fact, until M&S became involved with Ocado, I have never had white cabbage like this from Ocado and I buy it almost weekly to eat raw in coleslaw. There are often bugs, eggs or rotten bits inside, not something you want to eat raw.

If I was to see this on the shelf, there is no way I would buy it, so why does M&S think they can palm this rubbish off to online customers? Do they buy it cheap somewhere and hope most of us just accept it? There used to be alternatives to choose from, but M&S have got rid of many branded products, substituted them with their own brand, so you are now forced to buy their products which are often not great quality.

Yes, Ocado will refund customers, but I would much rather have a quality cabbage I can rely on delivered to me in the first place.

That one was probably used as a football, Alfa. It might have scored a goal. If it has come from Ocado it’s unlikely to have been rejected by customers.

If the supermarkets were to leave the outer leaves on cabbage and lettuce they would provide protection.

That cabbage won’t have been near a customer wavechange. It depends where the cabbage has come from, but the whole process from picking to delivery could be automated. Although it says UK on the label, M&S are rather deceptive and mark a lot of their products UK when they have been produced elsewhere but packed in the UK. e.g.
https://www.ocado.com/products/m-s-fairtrade-gold-decaf-instant-coffee-505746011
It does say packed in Germany after saying M&S are the manufacturer but . . .

Cabbages on Ocado have been pretty bad for quite a while now but with alternate brands removed, you can only buy M&S cabbages. I now shop Waitrose every so often.

I agree with leaving outer leaves on especially on cauliflowers as it keeps the heads white and stops them going yellow with black bits. In-store, I will always go for the ones with leaves on.

I wish that companies would be honest about where there products come from. As we have discussed elsewhere, it’s not just food. Without legislation, I cannot see it happening. We can keep pushing Which?

I have been happy with Waitrose, though I usually get a friend to buy me what I need. I don’t mind paying a bit more, but if branded items are significantly cheaper in Morrisons or Tesco I will buy from there.

Sam says:
24 April 2021

My experience with Waitrose is just that – too many fesh and chilled items with only 1-2 days left when delivered, it seems to be more noticeable now than 2 months ago.

Graham says:
24 April 2021

I use Sainsbury’s. I’ve had so-called ‘fresh’ veg that was expiring on the day it was delivered. I’ve also had both uncooked and cooked meat that was expiring within a day or two days of delivery. Fortunately, I spotted the date for the uncooked meat and stuck it in the freezer, but other than making one sandwich out of it, the foxes were given the rest of the cooked meat. I do appreciate that when the pickers are going around and filling their crates if it’s on the shelf, then they’ll assume it’s OK, but it does annoy me because I only have one delivery a week and what I have delivered is supposed to see me through. It doesn’t work if half the shopping is out of date within 2/3 days of being delivered.

Gail Stubbins says:
25 April 2021

I had at least 5 items due to expire the day after collection (click and collect) from ASDA about 2 weeks ago. All fresh produce; grapes, salad leaves, avocados, Salmon, blueberries. I requested refunds on all of it. The week before that, along with some other items expiring in 1 day, I also received a pack of 2 sponge deserts which were out of date by 10 days! Yes, I did complain. I check the dates every week and request refunds for all items with sort use by dates and also damaged/mouldy goods. It’s got to the point where I find it unusual to not have to request a refund.

We originally signed up with all supermarkets to try to get slots at the start of the pandemic but have come down to alternating between three (Which? Tip 1) Ocado, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. We book a slot as far ahead as possible and hold it (Which? Tip 2) by just putting everything in from the previous order, as you can change before its due up to around 24-36 hours, depending on which store. You do see how different they each are as regards sell-by dates. The worst is Sainsbury’s as we often get fresh items expiring within hours. The best by far is Ocado as we have never had a problem and the use by date is often beyond what they guarantee for the item on their website. They are the only one to do this. It probably has something to do with the picking done by robots whereas the other supermarkets use, doubtless exhausted, staff to go round the store to grab the items and probably working to a tight deadline. Waitrose let you put comments for each item and for fresh ones we always put a note to request they kindly pick the furthest away date but it doesn’t seem to make much difference. Finally they will all apologise if you can be bothered call them and wait to get through. When they offer a refund, Waitrose do in cash and Sainsbury’s in vouchers

Adrian Glover says:
26 April 2021

On Sunday evening at 20:36 had my Asda delivery. Two items mushrooms 🍄 l and scones looking ropey OOD on the Monday. First time trying online shopping. Will stick to products that have longer shelf life.

Maggie Scott says:
26 April 2021

Throughout the lockdown we have had food delivered alternate weeks by Sainsbury’s and Tesco. We have noticed that the use by dates for Sainsbury’s have often been within a day or two of delivery whereas Tescos have been about 5 days. I am looking forward to going into shops where i can check the dates myself!

Lucy Bulpin says:
26 April 2021

Yes I’ve been having deliveries from Sainsbury’s for over a year, since the first lockdown, as I’m in the elderly category and live 6 mies from the nearest shop, and every week I’m palmed off with almost out of date produce – usually bread or vegetables, so every week I’m having to return it, or ring them up for a refund. Also, they obviously don’t pack with care, as fruit is bruised, and bread squashed under tins. However, the delivery drivers are really helpful and friendly, so the fault is with the packers!

Lucy – It is difficult to get bread that will last more than a day or two if you buy it in a supermarket or baker’s shop.

Vegetables usually have a ‘best before’ [rather than a ‘use by’] date indication. It is often more cautious than necessary. Stored properly, vegetables will last at least a week.

I don’t know, but I would expect the picking and packing to roughly follow the order of products listed in each category. We don’t seem to have the same problem with spoiled goods; I order the soft and delicate items [fruit, vegetables, bakery, flowers] first so they appear at the bottom of our list and get picked last and are therefore on top of the heavy and bulky items. It might just be coincidence or perhaps the picking and packing is done more conscientiously where we are.

I eat relatively little bread and buy sliced that goes in the freezer. It does not take long to extract a couple of slices to defrost or to toast. Always bread on hand without waste.

This is how it’s done John

youtube.com – Inside a warehouse where thousands of robots pack groceries

Thanks, Beryl.

That is possibly why the Ocado robotic warehouse system has generated hardly any complaints about short-dated stock. Everything is tightly controlled according to the orders received and there are no nuisance customers in the way picking out the longest-dated stock first.

I couldn’t work out from the video whether the robots were extracting items from the boxes in the grid or placing goods inside them, nor how the system avoided putting the baked beans cans on top of the eggs when filling the customer crates after scanning.

Ocado, even if it were the people’s choice which – after the M&S tie-up – is doubtful, doesn’t have the capacity to take on all grocery supplies across the country so most of us will have to carry on relying on human pickers trundling round the supermarkets with big carts picking from the shelves and cabinets based on a list that is, presumably, organised on the basis of the product categories and aisle locations. Unless they just get a list and use their skill, knowledge and experience to find the required products and then their judgment to decide on substitutions where necessary.

Thinking earlier today about post-Covid shopping, it occurred to me how much time we used to spend doing it. I reckon we have an extra half a day a week every week now to do things that we enjoy more than shopping. Doing the fortnightly order doesn’t take long because it is largely based on what we have ordered previously, and putting the stuff away following delivery is much more convenient than having to carry a load of separate bags out of the car before restocking the fridge and the cupboards; that bit’s the same but I can bring it all in from the front door in my two large crates that the driver fills for us, park them on the kitchen table, see everything at a glance, and put it all away in no time. No doubt, in a few years time, our personal humanoid robots will do all this for us and we can just get on with our pastimes and leisure pursuits.

Anita Rigden says:
26 April 2021

I have ordered from both Sainsbury and Morrison’s recently. Delivery or click/collect. The reason being that I lost my job and so had to budget – rather than browse and please myself over the week’s meals. I had to complain to both retailers about problems like getting ‘fresh’ vegetables with wrinkled skin – not something you would expect their ‘trained staff’ to do to you. I have also received a joint of meat on a Thursday which was out of date the next day (what if was planning having it for Sunday lunch). It also absolutely stank because the packaging was ripped and must have been so for several days, so it had gone off. I have asked them – why is it OK for customers to receive goods that the picker would not buy themselves?

It seems to me that a combination of [1] a massive switch of customers [and people who were previously not their customers] to the major supermarkets for on-line orders for delivery has overwhelmed their management and supervisory processes, and [2] a significant reduction in staff attendance due to the coronavirus and its isolation requirements, have put the stores under unprecedented pressure. I am hoping that, if we abide by the rules, the pressure can be relaxed shortly and things will approach normal again.

This is not to excuse the supply of bad meat and poor quality control, but it is possible that imports as well as home-grown produce have been affected and food of lower quality has been accepted in order to meet the increased demand.

There has been a tendency by some of the people who are themselves cooped-up indoors to assume that the rest of the economy is unaffected, that all the staff are on duty every day as usual, and that the supply chain is running normally despite the disruption. I feel a little forgiveness is in order.

Anita – I have been discussing problems with online orders with friends for more than a year. Like availability of slots a lot depends on where you live. Sometimes food is selected for delivery from a depot but with the three stores that I have been using it is picked in the shop, so could be what other shoppers have left on the shelf.

I have been happy with the quality of Morrisons food and since it comes straight from the supermarket I know I can hand anything dodgy back to the assistant. I have only needed to do that a couple of times. I am also happy with Tesco and Waitrose click & collect services. and each has distinct advantages.

If your Morrisons and Sainsbury are not doing a good job despite the demand for online orders having fallen I wonder if another local supermarket might offer a better service. Neighbours and local friends might be able to report on their experiences. From what I have heard supermarkets are happy to refund the cost of unsatisfactory goods.