Sainsbury’s perishable food has the shortest average shelf life, with Ocado the longest, of the major UK online supermarkets, according to a new Which? investigation, which also found one grocer delivering hot dogs that were 11 days out of date.
With food price inflation still worryingly high and the shelf life of perishable goods an important consideration for the vast majority of online grocery shoppers, the consumer champion looked at how six major online supermarkets compared when it came to delivering fresh food and drink.
Using a team of 12 undercover shoppers from across the UK to test freshness, Which? placed online orders of 25 items, all with use-by dates, from six major supermarkets – Asda, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose – a total of more than 1,700 different groceries altogether. Researchers then added the number of full hours remaining from the time of delivery to midnight on the use-by date for each item and calculated an average time per supermarket.
There weren’t huge differences between the supermarkets’ overall averages, with a gap of 38 hours between the longest and shortest average shelf life for perishable products. But there were big differences when it came to specific items. Sainsbury’s was bottom of the list, with perishable items with an average shelf life of 9.7 days. Sainsbury’s also delivered the most out of date single item – chilled frankfurters that were 11 days out of date. However the grocer also delivered the item with the longest shelf life of all the supermarkets – a stilton with 37 days left to consume.
Waitrose was second last in Which?’s freshness league table with an average of 9.9 days. None of the products were delivered out of date but Which? researchers did receive pre-cut melon chunks with only one day to go. More impressively, Waitrose also delivered brie, frankfurters and stilton with more than 30 days left to use.
Asda’s deliveries had a 10 day average shelf life but Which? received a stilton that was out of date by nearly three days and a further five items with a use by date of the following day. It wasn’t all bad however, as Which? researchers also had a packet of beef mince included in the delivery with an impressive eight days left.
The groceries delivered by Morrisons had an average shelf life of 10.1 days according to Which?’s study. The retailer delivered sausages on the day of expiry as well as pre-cut melon that arrived not looking its best. However one shopper received a brie that had more than a month to be consumed.
Tesco’s groceries arrived with an average shelf life of 10.2 days. While nothing came that was already out of date, Which? researchers received chopped pineapple and melon, both with just a day to go, and stilton with just over two days to go. Another shopper received a stilton with more than 35 days shelf life.
Online-only Ocado was the best supermarket for delivering fresh food according to Which?’s investigation, with an average 11.2 day shelf life – 24 hours longer than second best Tesco. The worst items received were beef mince with just over two days left according to its use by date and a squashed triangle of brie that was still in date. At the other end of the spectrum a pack of bacon rashers arrived with almost a month left before the expiry date.
Which? found that while some of the items included came with over a month to go before their use by date, some products arrived looking very sad or with very little time to be consumed before they were no longer safe to eat. Some – including a stilton from Asda and frankfurters from Sainsbury’s – were already completely out of date by the time they were delivered. None of the items delivered on their use-by date were flagged by the driver to Which?’s researchers on the doorstep.
When Which? put its findings to Asda, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose, they all said they pick only the freshest items and that customers could return anything they are not happy with. However, in a separate survey, Which? found that only a quarter (24%) of shoppers who were dissatisfied with the freshness of their online groceries complained and more worryingly, 23 per cent ate products after their use-by dates. Meanwhile, 18 per cent threw the food away.
Which?’s findings are worrying as while a best before date is about quality, a use by date is about food safety so even foods that look or smell fine could make a person ill if consumed.
The consumer champion is advising anyone who is unhappy with the freshness of their online groceries to complain to the supermarket, or to consider switching to a supermarket with better policies on grocery freshness if possible, should problems persist.
Ele Clark, Which? retail editor, said:
“Online grocery shopping is a great way to fill your fridge without having to go to the supermarket or trudge home with heavy bags. Of course, there can be downsides to not choosing products yourself, but no one would expect items to already be out of date when they arrive at the doorstep.
“Shoppers should never have to pay for groceries that are not at their best. Customers not satisfied with their supermarket delivery can complain to the driver or contact the supermarket to get their money back. Any foods that have gone past their use-by date can be dangerous to eat, so it’s not worth the gamble, even if it smells and looks OK.”
Notes to editors:
Opinium surveyed 2,000 UK adults about their grocery shopping habits on behalf of Which? between 31 March and 4 April 2023.
72% of shoppers said the shelf life of groceries was an important factor in getting the best value for money.
Of those who were dissatisfied with the shelf life of their groceries, the most common response was to change meal plans (30%), complain to the supermarket (24%), eat the product anyway (23%) or throw the items away (18%).
Data was weighted to be nationally representative. Which? used 12 mystery shoppers across the UK to order the same types of 25 perishable items from Asda, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose between 27 March and 6 April 2023.
Which? added up the number of full hours remaining from the time of delivery to midnight on the use-by date for each item to calculate averages per supermarket and per item.
RIGHT OF REPLIES
An Asda spokesperson said: “We want all customers to receive the freshest products available and train our colleagues to pick products that are well within their use by date. If customers are not satisfied with the quality of any products delivered, they can hand these back to the driver and receive a full refund.”
An Ocado spokesperson said: “We’re delighted to have been named the best supermarket for freshness. Ocado guarantees a minimum life for products, ensuring our customers can enjoy fresh foods for longer.
“Our clever technology, used to forecast demand, and shorter supply chain means we only order from suppliers what we need which both minimises waste and increases freshness as our products don’t sit around on a shelf.”
A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said, “Great quality food is at the heart of Sainsbury’s. Our grocery online shoppers are trained to pick the longest date and best available products for customers’ deliveries. We deliver more than 85,000 orders a day on average and are sorry that this tiny number of examples has not lived up to our usual high service. If customers are not happy with the freshness or quality of their groceries, they are able to return products to our drivers at the doorstep for a full refund or contact our Careline for help.”
A Waitrose spokesperson said: “We’re committed to offering the best quality products, and pick the freshest produce with the longest shelf life available for our online deliveries.
“Our own research, which spoke to 180,000 customers, shows that the vast majority view our shelf life as good or excellent but we realise there’s always room for improvement so we are constantly reviewing feedback.”
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
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