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Sunday, Apr 2021

Column: How did a 3-year-old pizza get delivered by Instacart?

A Beverly Hills woman used Instacart to buy frozen pizza from Ralphs. What arrived had expired in 2017 and smelled "like when you go to the bathroom," she said.

Like many of us, Agneta Yilmaz has turned to Instacart to handle her shopping during the pandemic. She’s trusted the company to deliver fresh groceries from a nearby Ralphs supermarket and, generally speaking, she’s been pleased with the service.

So when the Beverly Hills resident recently opened a box of Celeste frozen pepperoni pizza for her 4-year-old granddaughter, she was shocked to discover it was completely brown and smelled, as Yilmaz put it, “like when you go to the bathroom.”

Yilmaz, 78, told me she immediately checked the expiration date on the box. It said, “Recommended use by Dec-12-17.”

Which is to say, three years ago.

Which is to say, ew!

A Ralphs spokesman acknowledged the incident and said the company is stepping up efforts to ensure all food products on shelves are fresh.

This is an unusual situation. But it speaks to larger issues involving product safety and the food supply chain.

Earlier this year, CNBC found that Amazon was shipping expired food items from third-party sellers. Half of the top-selling companies in Amazon’s Grocery & Gourmet section had received complaints about selling outdated food products, according to a study commissioned by the network.

Generally speaking, reports of expired food being delivered to people’s homes are infrequent and there’s little evidence that the danger of tainted food has increased as a result of the pandemic.

But what happened to Yilmaz should, if nothing else, serve as a reminder that it’s important to check expiration dates on all food products.

“It is easier than you may think for a product to get lost in the store so that it lives there in hiding longer than we might like as consumers,” said John Aloysius, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Arkansas.

He and other supply-chain and food-safety experts I spoke with said no one should be freaking out about a single 3-year-old pizza somehow making its way to a consumer’s residence.

Still, each was troubled that a food product so obviously past its sell-by date could still be in circulation.

“Three years old?” said Willy Shih, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. “That’s very odd. It really makes you wonder how it got there.”

Julie Niederhoff, an associate professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, said the most likely explanation is that “this product got misplaced at some point and then, when found, it was added to a stack of newer product without anyone checking the date.”

Daniel Hare, a spokesman for Conagra Brands, maker of Celeste Pizza, said this is the first such incident he’s heard about.

“Food safety is a top priority and we discourage people from eating products that are past the ‘best by’ date printed on the package,” he said.

Since he brought it up, this aspect of food labeling — “best by,” “use by,” etc. — has long been a source of confusion for consumers.

If milk is past its “sell by” date, for example, can you still drink it?

That’s not an idle question. The Food and Drug Administration estimates Americans throw out about a third of their food supply annually — more than 130 billion pounds, or about $161 billion worth.

The FDA said last year that it supports abandoning “use by” and “sell by” labels. Instead, it prefers “best if used by.”

This conveys to shoppers that while a product may no longer be at peak freshness if purchased near the “best by” date, it’s still safe to consume for a reasonable period afterward.

The “recommended use” on the pizza package Yilmaz purchased highlights the issue. Does that mean you shouldn’t eat the pizza after the posted date? Is it still OK a week later? A month later?

For the record, Conagra’s Hare said the normal shelf life for his company’s frozen pizza is one year. Not three years.

Danko Turcic, an associate professor of operations and supply chain management at UC Riverside, said he doesn’t see Conagra being at fault in this case.

“There is no reason for the manufacturer to be sending out 3-year-old pizzas,” he observed.

Similarly, Turcic said that if a distribution center had received a large shipment of expired pizzas, “we would have seen many more cases of this because distribution centers sell to stores by the pallets.”

He laid the blame squarely on Ralphs, saying that “the store did not do a good enough job of monitoring its inventory and discarding expired items.”

“I think that this is a rare case,” Turcic added. “A pizza slipped through the cracks. That said, why do Instacart employees not check expiration dates before they purchase the items? I would say that this one is equally on Instacart and Ralphs.”

A spokeswoman for Instacart, who didn’t want her name used although she’s, you know, a spokeswoman, said the company’s shoppers are instructed to examine the expiration dates of products they select.

What she didn’t mention is that Instacart workers are also under intense time pressure imposed by the company, which might make it tough to spare a few seconds to check an expiration date.

“In the rare instance that a customer receives an item that is past its expiration date, they can reach out to our care team for a full refund,” the spokeswoman said.

Yilmaz told me she didn’t blame Instacart. She wanted to know how the West Hollywood Ralphs at Doheny and Beverly — her regular supermarket — could have overlooked a 2017 pizza sitting in its freezer for three years.

Yilmaz called the company. She said a Ralphs service rep seemed “arrogant” and uninterested in the problem. The rep offered a $2 store credit to make things right.

“I told her I wasn’t interested in a refund,” Yilmaz recalled. “I was more concerned about someone else buying one of these pizzas and serving it to their grandchild.”

A supervisor came on the line and, according to Yilmaz, was similarly unimpressed by the primitive pizza. Nobody got sick, the supervisor pointed out.

So Yilmaz reached out to me, and I reached out to Ralphs, which is owned by industry heavyweight Kroger.

A deeply apologetic company exec contacted Yilmaz the next day.

“She stated she was shocked to hear about my experience and that it should never have happened,” Yilmaz told me.

The exec said the manager of the West Hollywood store had been ordered to have everything removed from the freezers and for all expiration dates to be examined.

Yilmaz said she also was informed that the service rep and supervisor who initially handled her situation would receive some remedial training in playing well with others.

“Safety, quality and freshness are our top priorities,” John Votava, a Ralphs spokesman, told me.

“This isolated incident does not represent the best of Ralphs and our standards of being fresh for everyone,” he said. “We have redoubled our efforts with the store team and call center to ensure it does not happen again.”

There are two takeaways from all this. First and most important, grocery stores need to be vigilant in ensuring that the products they sell are fresh and safe. For the most part, I think they are.

Second, as Harvard’s Shih succinctly put it, “Always look at the date.” Before you buy or consume something, that is.

Unless you enjoy pizza with everything on it.

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