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The Timely Rise of Imperfect Produce

A study conducted by the University of Edinburgh in 2018 estimated that more than one-third of farmed fruit and vegetables in Europe, around 50 million tonnes, are wasted every year because of their appearance. Here's why farmers, supermarkets and consumers are changing their attitude towards imperfect produce.

Crooked carrots, wonky pears, curvy cucumbers, bumpy apples and irregular peppers are not a common sight in supermarkets today. In fact, a significant amount of edible produce in Europe is discarded before even reaching the point of sale - often for little more than mere cosmetic reasons.1 So how can this happen? Who is to blame? And how is the current food price inflation changing this?

How do we measure the quality of produce in Europe?

In Europe, fruits and vegetables that pass the minimum quality requirements to be deemed fit for human consumption are divided into three ‘classes’ based on their shape, colour and peel characteristics: “Extra” class, “Class I” or “Class II”. For example, Fuji apples can be sold as “Extra” class only if stalks are intact and at least half of the fruit skin is red, among other features.2,3 In Fuji apples of “Class I”, the stalk may be missing, provided the break is clean and the adjacent skin is not damaged, red skin covers at least 30 per cent of the fruit, and roughened brownish areas do not exceed 20 per cent of the total fruit surface. “Class II” apples can have more imperfections but are still perfectly edible and healthy.

Fuji apples can be sold as “Extra” class only if stalks are intact and at least half of the fruit skin is red, among a few other features.
Fuji apples can be sold as “Extra” class only if stalks are intact and at least half of the fruit skin is red, among a few other features. In Fuji apples of “Class I”, the stalk may be missing, provided the break is clean and the adjacent skin is not damaged, red skin covers at least 30% of the fruit and roughened brownish areas do not exceed 20% of the total fruit surface. “Class II” apples can have more imperfections, but are still perfectly edible and healthy.

These quality criteria apply to apples and nine other products that account for about 75 per cent of EU veggies and fruits; they focus on the appearance of the produce and the “absence of any foreign smell and/or taste” but do not include nutritional features, vitamin content or other taste-related characteristics.

While today’s standards are still relatively stringent, the standards were even stricter in the past. From the late 80s until 2009, European marketing standards prohibited the sale of 26 types of fruits and veggies that were not conforming to aesthetic standards. In 2008, the EU States were asked to vote in favour or against the EU Commission’s plans to repeal this. The majority voted in favour, but all of the EU’s largest fruit - and vegetable-producing States (e.g., France, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Greece) wanted to keep rigid standards, arguing that the change would impair the overall quality of EU fruits and vegetables and lower market prices.4,5 

What happens to the ugly fruits and veggies?

Although European standards have been relaxed since 2009, they are still perceived as excessive by some.6,7 And even if ‘lower grade’ produce can officially enter consumer markets, it tends to be undervalued, so the likelihood that it makes it to supermarkets’ shelves is low.8,9

Unfortunately, if the rejected produce cannot be donated to charities, sold to animal feed companies, or used in processed products, it can easily end up in landfills. Farmers may also decide to leave their fruits and vegetables unharvested in the field because the time and money spent harvesting would not be worth it from a financial perspective.10

The power of supermarket standards

To compete with other retailers and meet consumers’ expectations, supermarkets can dictate even stricter cosmetic rules than the EU-established standards. As a result, perfectly edible ‘ugly produce’ can be sent back to the farmer.11,12 In 2014, for example, the UK National Farmers Union reported that retailers demanded Gala apples with at least 50 per cent red skin. The rejected apples could not go to the juice market because the price offered wouldn’t cover the cost of harvesting. As a result, 20 per cent of the crop was wasted.13

More recently, in the drought of 2020-21, Sicilian oranges that did not grow to their full size were not accepted by some Italian supermarkets. Instead, many retailers imported oranges from other countries, such as Spain.12 Furthermore, it is not all about food aesthetics but quantity as well: a good growing year doesn’t equal a better payout for the farmers. In a bumper year, supply can outweigh demand, and the market value of produce can drop significantly. 

How should we market misshapen fruits and veggies?

Supermarkets use a variety of strategies to attract consumers. For example, the fruits and vegetables section is placed right at the supermarket entrance: it stands for freshness and health and is an important part of the grocery shopping experience. The section is usually carefully curated, well-lit and often sprayed with water to look at its best. Choosing perfect-looking fresh produce is a powerful marketing strategy. After all, we ‘eat (and shop) with our eyes’.

So, how to present the not-so-perfect produce to people? Research has shown that the simple labelling of imperfect produce makes a notable difference in our perception of the produce. For example, researchers in Canada found that consumers expected vegetables labelled “ugly” to be less tasty and even less nutritious than more traditionally attractive foods.14

But habits can change. In a US study, researchers discovered that 42 per cent of consumers were more likely to buy bunches of carrots containing both wonky and regular shapes over bunches containing only conventionally shaped carrots if they were told that wonky carrots are just as healthy and that purchasing these carrots helps reduce food waste.15

Recent changes in attitude

In recent years, food waste issues began to attract greater public attention and several supermarket chains have launched and advertised their own ‘ugly produce’ lines, such as Intermarché’s ‘Inglorious fruits & vegetables’ and Tesco’s ‘Imperfectly Perfect’.16,17 This wonky produce has been really popular, and is typically offered at 30-50 per cent reduced rates compared to their perfectly shaped counterparts to encourage sales.18 And if reducing food waste wasn’t enough to convince people, the recent cost of living crisis has driven behavioural change even further.

While consumers may have once avoided the ‘ugly produce’ in favour of the more aesthetically pleasing option, the situation changed with the current spike in food prices that is affecting Europe. Due to the combination of drought during the summer of 2022 and an increase in food price inflation, many supermarket brands have accepted more wonky fruits and vegetables from the farmers while trying to please consumers who are looking for cheaper ways to shop.19,20,21

Learn more about the true cost of food inflation here

Beyond supermarkets, the ‘ugly produce movement’ is spreading to other sectors, with a number of start-ups also joining the war on waste. Businesses that deliver boxes of fruits and vegetables rejected by supermarkets have been sprouting in many countries, such as Querfeld in Germany, Flaw4Life in Portugal, Bella Dentro and Babaco Market in Italy, Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce in the US. They all collect misshapen fruits and veggies directly from the farmers at a fair price and sell them to anybody willing to buy them.

On top of this, sensing the market opportunities and consumer demand, some processed food and beverage companies no longer hide their use of wonky produce. Instead, many are now opting to showcase their use of wonky fruits and veggies in their products: some companies producing juices, soft drinks and spirits emphasise the presence of wonky produce among their ingredients.22,23,24

Change is also occurring on the business-to-business level: EIT Food’s initiative Get Wasted has recently created a platform where farmers sell their surplus products to central kitchens that supply schools and schools directly; instead of food processing companies. It started with a pilot project in Antwerp, Belgium, during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021-2022, and it is now expanding to other cities. “Get Wasted tries to match every surplus product to the ideal user in the food system, to encourage circular economy and prevent vegetable and fruit surpluses from going to waste,” says Yana Pannecoucke from EIT Food, Project Lead of Get Wasted.

Global warming and extreme climate episodes increase diseases and pests on most cultivated varieties. The choice to avoid pesticides and chemicals in organic agriculture also leads farmers to cohabit with insects population and biodiversity.

Are ‘ugly’ veggies and fruits becoming more common?

Changes in weather and climate, such as rising temperatures and extreme weather events, impact the quantity, size and aesthetics of the produce. For example, the heatwave in the UK during the summer of 2022 caused smaller sweetcorn, as well as stunted cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.25 Sadly, these extreme weather events are becoming the new normal, if climate targets are not met.26,27,28

The combination of food waste awareness campaigns, Europe’s hottest summer on record and the current food inflation has brought more wonky fruits and vegetables to our shelves. The European Commission will boost its commitment to fight against food losses and waste, but the last words are with us, the consumers.

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References
  1. 543/2011/EU: Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 543/2011
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  5. European Parliament - Liaison Office in the United Kingdom (2016). “Bendy Bananas - the Myth to end all Myths”
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  14. Grocery Gazette (2022). “An imperfect solution: how supermarkets are pushing ‘wonky’ fruit and veg”
  15. Slate (2015). “Groceries Often Reject Ugly Carrots and Grotesque Apples. This Campaign Celebrates Them.”
  16. American Marketing Association (2019).
  17. Grocery Gazette (2022). “Wonky veg sales soar 16% as 4.8m customers look for cheaper ways to shop”
  18. European Supermarket Magazine (2022). “With Inflation Rising, Carrefour Unveils 'Imperfect' Product Range At Reduced Prices”
  19. Bloomberg (2022). “British Shoppers Turn to Wonky Vegetables as Food Price Inflation Soars - Bloomberg
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  21. Grocery Gazette (2022). “Dash releases marketing campaign to increase awareness of food waste”
  22. The Independent (2022). “Aldi Haysmith’s £14.99 gin is crafted with wonky fruit to reduce waste”
  23. BBC (2022). “UK drought: Why we need to get used to wonky vegetables”
  24. WeForum (2022). “Vegetables are changing shape because of the climate crisis”
  25. The Guardian (2022). “The new normal. How Europe is being hit by a climate-driven drought crisis”
  26. “Europe hotting up more than twice global average: WMO”
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