Amazon’s sprawling marketplace, consisting of millions of third-party sellers, has become a go-to site for many grocery shoppers, especially since the company’s acquisition of Whole Foods over two years ago.
But an increasing number of consumers are finding that, just as the broader Amazon Marketplace has a major issue with counterfeits and unsafe products, the grocery section is littered with similarly problematic items in the form of expired foods.
From baby formula and coffee creamer to beef jerky and granola bars, items are arriving spoiled and well past their sell-by date, Amazon customers say. Interviews with brands, consumers, third-party sellers and consultants all point to loopholes in Amazon’s technology and logistics system that allow for expired items to proliferate with little to no accountability. Consumer safety advocates worry that as the marketplace grows, the problem will only get worse.
Within Amazon’s $900 billion empire, food sellers are among the more than 2.5 million businesses using the site for distribution, a group that now accounts for 58% of the company’s total merchandise sold. Third-party merchants sell products, new and used, from all over the world that they purchase from official distributors, flea markets and clearance aisles.
CNBC scanned the site’s Grocery & Gourmet category, finding customer complaints about expired hot sauce, beef jerky, granola bars, baby formula and baby food, as well as six-month-old Goldfish crackers and a 360-pack of coffee creamer that arrived with a “rancid smell.” A data analytics firm that specializes in the Amazon Marketplace recently analyzed the site’s 100 best-selling food products for CNBC and found that at least 40% of sellers had more than five customer complaints about expired goods.
Closeout sales and liquidation warehouses can be a hotbed for expired food that ends up on Amazon. In 2017, when Starbucks announced it was shuttering its Teavana locations, many sellers purchased discounted tea-related merchandise from the stores and resold it on Amazon. Today, you can find Teavana products such as rock sugar and fruit teas listed on Amazon even though they were discontinued two years ago.
For one Teavana listing, the top customer review says the tea had a “terrible chemical smell” possibly from spoiled fruit. The listing also clearly shows a “not for resale label,” which is alarming, said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, a consumer advocacy group. The “not for resale” label likely indicates that the product lacks proper nutrition labels or other features that are necessary in direct-to-consumer sales, she said.
“At least someone in the supply chain considered these not suitable to be offered for consumption,” Sorscher said.
An Amazon seller, who has sold sugar, spices and other food products on the site for the past nine years, told CNBC that Amazon didn’t respond to numerous inquiries about the out-of-date Teavana products.
Representatives from Nestle, which owns the rights to sell Starbucks coffee and tea, including Teavana, declined to comment. An Amazon spokesperson told CNBC that products sold on the site, including those marked not for resale, must comply with laws and Amazon policies. Third-party sellers are required to provide Amazon with an expiration date if they’re selling an item meant for consumption and must guarantee the item has a remaining shelf life of 90 days.
Whether that Amazon policy is effective is a big question, says food-safety experts.
“There’s no indication of how well that policy is enforced,” said Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy at advocacy group Consumer Federation of America. “Some sellers could be making a business decision to sell expired products and let Amazon catch some of it and toss it out and persist.”
One third-party listing for Hot & Spicy Doritos, a best-seller in Amazon’s chips category and a featured product, has numerous reviews saying the chips were “stale” and set to expire in a matter of days. Popular listings for Fiji water, including one featured by Amazon, show reviews with users claiming they received recycled Fiji bottles filled up with tap water.
Angie Atkinson of St. Louis was surprised in February when she received a box of Land O’ Lakes Half & Half creamers purchased on Amazon, and opened it to find that every carton was curdled. She looked at the use-by date and was “horrified” when she saw they were already expired.
“It didn’t occur to me that you could even sell something that was expired,” Atkinson said in an interview. “If I had bought it the first time and it was like that, I never would have bought it at all.”
By the time Andrea Wilson realized her Hostess brownies were more than a year old, she had already eaten one. She contacted Amazon about the order. The issue wasn’t resolved until she tweeted at the company. She got her full refund but said she’s done buying food on Amazon.
“I’m leery now,” said Wilson, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. “It wasn’t just a month, it was a whole year, which I thought was pretty extreme.”
Amazon said in a statement: “With the A-to-z Guarantee, customers are always protected whether they make a purchase from Amazon or a third-party seller.”
After CNBC brought a number of expired food products to Amazon’s attention, the company said it took corrective action to make sure the listings were in line with its standards. Amazon said they were isolated incidents that didn’t require enforcement action against the sellers or removal of any products.
Many of the identified products continue to receive complaints that they’re expired, with some showing negative reviews posted as recently as this week.