More people are doing their grocery shopping online than ever before. And there are clear benefits, particularly when you're navigating COVID-19 restrictions – being able to shop any time you want and avoiding contact with others, for example.
But online grocery shopping isn't all smooth sailing. One complaint that we hear often is of food being delivered that's close to or past its date marking.
It could be a 3L bottle of milk that expires in 24 hours; an expensive fillet steak bought as a treat for an anniversary dinner on the weekend that has to be eaten on the day of delivery instead; a bag of salad mix that's already past its use by date.
It might be just a minor inconvenience, but sometimes it's a major disruption, and can even pose a potential health risk.
So how prevalent is this complaint? And what can you do to prevent it happening to you (again)?
We surveyed online grocery shoppers to ask about the issue. Here's what they told us.
46% of survey respondents had received food that was at, or very close to, its expiry date.
Almost half (46%) of the people we surveyed have received an online order with short-dated food products – those at, or very close to, their date markings.
Chilled milk (44%), chilled meat (36%), packaged salad/vegetables/herbs (29%) and yoghurt (21%) were identified as the foods most often delivered with a less than ideal shelf life.
While you might choose to buy a short-dated product in store because you know you can use it that day (or you're drawn to its marked-down price), having one foisted on you can be irritating, to say the least.
It's pretty annoying to get a week's worth of groceries only to find all the meat will need to be used in a couple of days
Jessica says "I received meat that would have needed to be consumed in the next six hours to remain in date. I had already cooked that night's dinner so it was wasted."
"I received a branded loaf of rye bread that expired the day I click-and-collected it," says Rachel. "But I didn't realise that until it went mouldy the next day so had to be thrown out."
"It's pretty annoying to get a week's worth of groceries only to find all the meat will need to be used in a couple of days. I don't generally check the use by date on dairy goods but have been caught out with a large tub of yoghurt being past the use by date by the time I went to use it a couple of days later," says Gina.
Not what shoppers would choose themselves
Almost eight in 10 (78%) of our survey respondents told us they wouldn't have selected that particular product had they been in store, and for almost four in 10 (38%) it meant a change to their weekly menu/meal planning in order to consume the product before the expiry date.
"I often find myself cooking several meals at once and freezing them if I'm not careful in my purchases," says Lee.
Some survey respondents even speculated if sending short-dated products was a retailer tactic for getting rid of products close to the end of their shelf life.
"Would be interesting to know if shoppers are directed to use up short-dated products on online orders," says Chris.
Reports of out-of-date food being delivered were less common, but not insignificant.
Just over one in ten people (13%) we surveyed had received food products in an online shop that were past their date markings.
- 7% received products past their use-by date
- 8% received products past their best before date
- 4% received products past their expiry date (but weren't sure if it was the use-by or best before date)
The products most commonly past their date markings were:
- packaged salads/vegetables/herbs (38%)
- yoghurts (25%)
- chilled meat (24%)
- chilled milk (22%)
- cheese (20%)
- bakery cakes/sweet treats (16%)
- chilled ready meals (15%)
When you're shopping instore you can check the date marking on a product's label and reach to the back of the cabinet for an alternative with a longer shelf life. Clearly you don't have this option when shopping online, so are there measures in place to ensure you don't receive unreasonably short-dated or even out-of-date food products?
Supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths dominate the online grocery shopping industry in Australia, so we reached out to them for comment.
A Coles' spokesperson told us, "We aim to stock only fresh products of the highest quality in all of our fresh food departments.
"When packing Coles Online orders our team members follow strict guidelines that detail the minimum use-by date acceptance – these differ across our fresh produce categories including dairy, meat, bakery and eggs."
But they add, "We don't currently offer our customers the choice to select specific use-by dates for individual items."
Customers can let us know about their preferences by adding to the notes in their online orderWoolworths' spokesperson
Woolworths' online shopping platform has more functionality. A Woolworths' spokesperson told us: "Our dedicated personal shoppers hand-pick fruit and veg for online orders to meet the unique requests of our customers. This can include picking an under-ripe banana for later in the week or ready-to-eat avocado for that night's dinner."
"Customers can let us know about their preferences by adding to the notes in their online order, and our personal shoppers will do their best to meet their needs based on the stock available at the time."
What customers say about making special requests
Many survey respondents have had a positive experience using this feature.
"I now make a note asking for a long expiry on meat. Haven't had a problem since," says Erin.
Kerry says, "I like that when you buy items like bananas you can ask for some that are yet to ripen, so you get some yellow and some green. I've also learnt you can add notes to most items so I ask for the fresh items such as prepared salads with expiry dates as far in the future as possible (after my experience of getting one that was a few days after purchase). It requires more effort but I think it's worth it. You can order more (to last longer) and shop less."
It requires more effort but I think it's worth it. You can order more (to last longer) and shop lessKerry, Woolworths shopper
But not everyone has found it helps.
"[I've] always stated that I only want milk supplied with a greater use-by date than a week ahead (to ensure it will be consumed by that date) and have twice (in a row) had that request ignored," says Peter.
"I've given up online shopping as I have been delivered short-dated products far too many times – this is despite requesting the longest available use-by dates with my order," says Robert.
Both Coles and Woolworths offer refunds or exchanges for products that don't meet expectations.
It's an offence for retailers to sell food that's past its use-by date, according to Australian food regulator FSANZ. A food that's past its best before date can still be sold, however, provided the food is fit for human consumption – it hasn't deteriorated or perished, for example. But it might not be something you'd choose to buy if you were shopping instore.
So what are your rights if you receive an out-of-date food product, or if you feel short-changed by the short-dating on a delivered food item?
A Coles spokesperson tells us: "We offer a full refund or replacement for products that do not meet our customers' quality expectations."
Likewise, a Woolworths spokesperson tells us: "If customers have any concerns with the quality of a fresh food product they've bought either instore or online, they can return it for a refund and replacement as part of our Fresh or Free guarantee."
Customers' experience with refunds
In practice we found that customers aren't always opting to ask for a replacement or requesting a refund. The majority of our survey respondents who received foods past their date marking disposed of them (69%) and about a third just went ahead and ate them anyway.
The perceived (or actual) effort required to get the refund or replacement could be a deterrent.
In John's experience, "Mostly the supermarket refunds without question, but it is still hard when you have to make a special trip to the supermarket to pick up a replacement."
The perceived (or actual) effort required to get the refund or replacement could be a deterrent
But almost a third did pursue an exchange or refund for expired and short-dated foods, and the experience of those who shared details with us was generally positive.
"The refund process was surprisingly simple," says Scott.
Gary agrees. "For the occasional cases of short-dating (or any quality complaint of any type), it was very easy to lodge a complaint online, nominate the item, and receive a refund for that item," he says.
"The supermarket that supplied the past use-by date was very apologetic and happy to refund," says Kim.
Rebecca's experience was similar. "As frustrating as it was to receive short-dated foods, the supermarket was always easy to communicate with and without question gave a refund for the item(s)."
Supermarkets should take responsibility for sticking to their own guidelines
And some respondents gave us specific examples.
"I received a prompt refund for some chilled fresh chicken that was well and truly spoiled, even though it was within the use-by date," says Michael.
Adrienne says: "In my case, the cauliflower rice was due to expire on the day of receipt and I complained and got a refund."
While a positive resolution to a problem is pleasing, it wouldn't be necessary if customers are delivered fresh, good quality and in-date products in the first place – our research shows that this isn't always happening. Supermarkets should take responsibility for sticking to their own guidelines, rather than the onus being on individual shoppers to complain and ask for refunds.
Date marks indicate the shelf life of a food – the length of time a food should keep before its quality begins to deteriorate or, in some cases, it becomes less nutritious or unsafe.
All food with a shelf life of less than two years must carry a date marking, and there are two main types:
This is the date up until which you'd expect a food to retain all of its quality attributes – colour, taste, texture and flavour, for example – provided the package is unopened and it has been stored correctly. It's safe to eat past this date, but its quality may have diminished.
This is the last date on which the food is safe to eat, again provided the package is unopened and it has been stored correctly. After this date the food shouldn't be eaten due to health and safety reasons – a build-up of bacteria may occur, for example.
Short-dated is an expression used to describe a product that's at, or very close to, its date marking.
How we survey
Our food expiry date survey was sent to people from the CHOICE research community who have previously indicated in surveys they shop for groceries online. A total of 431 online grocery shoppers responded.
The CHOICE research community (Voice Your Choice) is made up of around 12,000 people representing CHOICE members and Australian consumers.
Our in-house consumer research team designs all surveys and analyses the results to ensure they are reported in a robust and fair way. Fieldwork was conducted 1–16 July 2021.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.