With grocery freshness emerging as an important consideration for soaring numbers of online grocery shoppers, the consumer champion looked at how the six major online supermarkets compared when it came to delivering fresh food and drink.
Which? used a team of 12 undercover shoppers to order more than 1,000 groceries, with each ordering the same 16 perishable grocery items from each of the online supermarkets. It totalled up 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.
Tesco came top for freshness, with items lasting 11 days on average. The supermarket not only showed the expected shelf life of perishable items on its website, but – unlike some of its rivals – had no examples of damaged packaging or food that had gone off by the time it was delivered.
Asda was the second freshest supermarket with an average of 10.5 days shelf life on all grocery items, although it did deliver one pack of bacon on its use-by date. Online-only supermarket Ocado was a close third with an average of 10.4 days.
Meanwhile, Waitrose finished at the bottom of the table with items lasting an average of 8.6 days. The high-end supermarket also delivered two packets of beef that appeared to have gone off, despite being within their use-by dates.
The consumer champion also found stark differences in the use-by dates of individual products. The longest-lasting mince (from Asda) had 13.4 days left, while the mince with the shortest time left came from Morrisons and had just 2.1 days left. Meanwhile, the semi-skimmed milk with the longest date was from Asda and lasted 18.3 days, compared to just 4.7 days left for one bottle of semi-skimmed milk from Waitrose. A packet of bacon rashers from Asda lasted just 13 hours, while one from Ocado lasted a whopping 28.6 days.
All the supermarkets say they train staff to pick food with the longest possible dates for online deliveries and click and collect, but a number of supermarket workers behind the scenes told Which? that speed targets put them under pressure when trying to pick the freshest groceries.
Groceries that have gone past their use-by dates could be dangerous and should not be eaten. Worryingly, undercover shoppers took delivery of two items – both pots of single cream from Sainsbury’s and Ocado – where the use-by date had already passed.
Three items from Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s were delivered on their use-by dates, meaning they had just hours left to be officially safe to eat. And eight items were delivered with a use-by date of the following day – four from Sainsbury’s, three from Waitrose and one from Morrisons.
Which? also found examples of food within its use-by date that appeared to have gone off. These included minced beef from Asda, Ocado and Waitrose where the packaging had expanded with air, which is usually a sign that bacteria are growing, as well as a separate pack of dark brown mince from Waitrose and soggy bagged salad from Ocado.
Groceries that have passed their use-by date are not the only problem shoppers complain of when online shopping. Damaged and squashed packaging is another issue.
Which? found that 10 grocery items it ordered were so damaged the food may not have been safe to eat. These ranged from Morrisons bacon rashers and Ocado pasta salad where the plastic film was torn, to leaking cream and milk from Ocado, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.
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.
Harry Rose, Which? magazine editor, said:
“Our analysis shows that when it comes to delivering fresh food and drink there can be a significant difference between online supermarkets. Shockingly, our mystery shoppers found some items that were already out of date when delivered, as well as groceries that appeared to have gone off before their use-by dates had even passed.
“Use-by dates are about safety and shoppers should not risk eating out-of-date food. Anyone who is unhappy with the freshness of their online groceries should complain to their supermarket, or switch to a supermarket with better policies on food freshness if possible.”
Notes to editors
Which? used 12 mystery shoppers to order the same 16 perishable groceries from each of six major online supermarkets in June 2021. Which? added up 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 per supermarket.
Average hours left for products bought online
Tesco – 264 hours
Asda – 252 hours
Ocado – 249 hours
Sainsbury’s – 230 hours
Morrisons – 221 hours
Waitrose – 207 hours
Supermarkets’ policies on use-by dates
Freshness policy Will never send anything with a use-by or best before the same day as delivery
How does it flag this? n/a
Refunds Hand back to the driver, request refunds at Asda.com or call 0800 952 0101
Freshness policy Aims for at least three days’ life on products
How does it flag this? By the driver on the doorstep
Refunds Hand back to the driver or call 0345 611 6111
Freshness policy The Ocado website shows expected shelf life of perishable items when you order your items
How does it flag this? Receipts are listed in order of expiry date
Refunds Log into your online account and select ‘request refund’, or contact via email, telephone, chat bot or social media
Freshness policy Items with today or tomorrow’s date are classed as having a short life
Refunds Hand back to the driver or call 0800 328 1700
Freshness policy The website shows the expected shelf life of perishable items
How does it flag these? By email
Refunds Hand back to the driver, click-and-collect staff or call 0800 323 4040
Freshness policy No specific definition, but online pickers are trained to ‘pick the best possible date’
How does it flag this? N/A
Refunds Hand back to the driver or call 0800 188 884
Rights of reply
Tesco said: “We’re pleased to see that Tesco’s basket came out as the freshest. We want our customers to receive the freshest produce possible, and we train our colleagues to use the ‘would I buy it’ check when they pick items for online orders.”
Waitrose said: “We thoroughly train our Partners to pick products for online deliveries that are in prime condition and that have the longest dates on the shelf. We are looking into what happened in this instance.”
Ocado said: “At Ocado we aim to provide our customers with the best possible experience, including the widest range, greatest value and freshest produce. We work hard to ensure our supply chain is efficient and runs smoothly in order to deliver the freshest food with the longest shelf life, while maintaining the lowest levels of food waste in the industry. We are able to do this as a result of items going directly from our customer fulfilment centres to customers’ doors.”
Morrisons said: “We are disappointed to hear that our high quality standards were not met by your shopping panel on this occasion. We are looking into why this may have happened as our in store pickers are coached to pick the best quality products with the longest date code. Where possible, it should have a minimum of three days life (today plus two days), unless it is freshly made in store by our expert Market Street colleagues. Once the products reach our customer’s doorstep, the drivers are then asked to complete a ‘Fresh Check’ and highlight any products that have a shelf life shorter than three days. At the same time, the driver also checks the quality of items that are susceptible to damage in transit such as eggs, bread or yoghurts.”
Sainsbury’s said: “We fulfil over 850,000 home delivery and Click & Collect orders every week and have asked Which? for the opportunity to investigate the 12 experiences this report is based on. We regularly listen to customer feedback and our satisfaction scores are strong. These findings are also at odds with Which?’s far more comprehensive research from earlier this year, which dubbed Sainsbury’s the UK’s favourite online retailer and only Which? recommended provider for groceries online.
“Our groceries online customers receive products with the longest possible shelf life and our colleagues receive training to ensure they select the freshest items available. If a shorter shelf life product is due to be included in a customer’s order we will email to let them know in advance and they have the option of returning it to the driver for a full refund.”
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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