What makes one carrot better than another carrot? Is the apparent consumer preference for flawless vegetables being driven by shoppers or by a desire on the part of retailers to present the best possible range of fresh produce to the buying public? Produce Business UK investigates
These questions and more have come to the fore of a UK national debate on the merits or otherwise of ‘wonky’ fruit and veg in recent weeks, as largely media-driven campaigns have focused attention on needless food waste and whether this could be alleviated by selling more imperfect fresh produce.
Given that a petition launched by 38 degrees on 7 November calling on UK supermarkets to stop forcing farmers to throw away “tonnes of fresh food” because it may be misshapen has attracted close to 160,000 signatures, it is clear that public interest in the topic has never been greater.
The sight of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall challenging Morrisons over its ‘wonky veg’ policy on the BBC’s Hugh’s War on Waste TV programme this month has only served to focus further attention on the debate.
More action required?
The UK’s Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), which is working with retailers to tackle food waste through its ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaign, states that positive efforts are already being made by British supermarkets, particularly highlighting work being done by Asda and Sainsbury’s to include misshapen products in their value ranges.
A spokesperson for WRAP says retailers who have signed up to its Courtauld Commitment targets to reduce waste both in the supply chain and at home are showing good progress.
She adds: “WRAP is unable to quantify the value of surplus produce which cannot be sold as a result of not meeting product specifications, due to a lack of information – but future growth in demand for food (as population increases in the UK and globally) will create increasing pressure to make best use of all food production.”
However, not all pressure groups are convinced by the retailers’ efforts.
Kierra Box, a campaigner for land use, food and water security with Friends of the Earth, claims supermarkets are still not doing enough to tackle food waste across their supply chains.
She explains: “We’ve seen a flurry of action from supermarkets recently, from Morrisons’ promise to donate 100% of surplus food to charity, to Tesco’s announcement of plans to cut transit times to ensure less wastage of fresh goods.
“However, none of this much-publicised action tackles the core issue of waste at the ‘farm gate’ due to exacting and unnecessary cosmetic standards or last minute order cancellations.”
Box claims announcing action which does not tackle these core issues is a disingenuous response, which places the blame for waste back on consumers for not buying enough food, planning meals appropriately or storing fresh items effectively.
“We need supermarkets to step up – taking responsibility for food wasted due to purely cosmetic concerns and committing to support suppliers to ensure that as much food as possible ends up as lunch rather than landfill by scrapping practices which see some food judged by appearance rather than taste,” she says.
Box argues there is a clear opportunity for supermarkets to change their approach to cosmetic standards and embrace ‘wonky’ vegetables, claiming that the level of waste within the supply chain is causing widespread anger among consumers.
“The long held argument that customers simply won’t buy imperfect produce will no longer cut it,” she states. “When Asda consulted on their new ‘wonky veg’ range earlier this year, they found that 65% of shoppers were happy with oddly-shaped produce – and experiences on the continent where retailers have embraced ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables suggest that cosmetic perfection simply isn’t an issue for most consumers.
“We need to see supermarkets take the lead and mount a proactive campaign to tackle food waste by scrapping cosmetic standards, promoting fruit and veg of all shapes and sizes, and educating consumers about the benefits of adopting a new approach to food.”
Latchford claims supermarket standards have been imposed by “those who believe they know what their customers want”. In fact, however, she says studies and research show consumers cannot tell the difference and “would certainly not want to be party to causing the consequences we now know occur on a daily basis from enforcing such strict criteria”.
“Regarding the role of buyers and those who sell fresh produce to the hospitality industry, it’s of the utmost importance that the virtues of using the whole of the product are extolled,” Latchford points out.
“Also, promoting products with sustainable qualities and those that have the least environmental impact as possible should be highlighted and pushed. Buyers need to be aware of the pressures faced by farmers and the climatic influences that they may face from one year to the next and adapt and respond accordingly.”
Although UK celebrity chef Fearnley-Whittingstall has slated Morrisons’ decision to discontinue a recent trial of misshapen courgettes in a Milton Keynes store as “pathetic”, Morrisons has committed to selling ‘wonky’ carrots, potatoes, onions and parsnips as a bagged, value option before the end of the year.
Not to be outdone, the UK’s other major grocery retailers have already been quick to react to Fearnley-Whittingstall’s documentary, with Asda announcing on the day that the programme was due to air that it would be extending its wonky fruit and vegetable range to “reduce waste”.
In a statement, the retailer said its Beautiful Inside range – which currently includes carrots, pears, apples and citrus – would be extended to feature sweet potatoes and garlic, and would also be sold in a greater number of stores.
Sold at a reduced price in a dedicated fixture, the brand, which began as a trial in five stores at the beginning of the year, will now be available in a further 25 outlets, while Asda has pledged to increase the range further in 2016.
At Tesco, meanwhile, a spokesperson says the retailer has already done a great deal to make sure greater quantities of ‘wonky’ fruits and vegetables are available in its stores, such as including a variety of produce of different shapes and sizes in its Everyday Value range.
“Our approach is to use as much of the crop as possible – in the case of bananas, second class and small bananas now go into our Goodness range, single fingers are now used in our One Stop stores and we have also started to process bananas into smoothies and milkshakes,” he explains.
The spokesperson also points out that Tesco last year widened its specifications on apples to include products with cosmetic defects, resulting, it claims, in over 2,000 tonnes of apples being sold in Tesco stores last year that may otherwise have gone to waste.
In September 2014, the retailer also trialled a ‘Wonky Veg’ branded range of imperfect carrots and mushrooms, for which it says it has already received positive feedback.
For Sainsbury’s, a spokesperson notes that the company’s existing three own-brand tiers – basics, by Sainsbury’s and Taste the Difference – enable it to use lots of different shapes and sizes of fruits and vegetables.
“The parsnips sold in our basics range will have large, small, tapered and even ‘wonky’ veg in the bag, and when a fresh item isn’t right for any of our three tiers we will, wherever possible, use it somewhere else, like in our apple juice or ready-made mashed potatoes,” she says.
Although it does not have a specific programme, a spokesperson for Waitrose says the retailer sells ‘ugly’ or weather-blemished fruit, which may have been damaged by hail, on a seasonal basis or when available.
But how does the response of UK grocery retailers compare with that of our continental cousins? In some notable cases, it would appear that the UK is lagging some way behind.
In May, France’s National Assembly unanimously voted in favour of new laws that effectively make it illegal for retailers to discard edible food, as part of a campaign to reduce food waste.
The new laws will compel supermarkets to donate unsold food to charity or enable it to be used for animal feed, compost or energy generation.
French grocery retailer Intermarché has become one of the most high profile companies in the country – and probably the most vocal – to become actively involved in promoting the sale of ‘wonky’ produce.
France’s third-largest supermarket retailer, Intermarché ran the ‘fruits et légumes moches’ (ugly fruits and vegetables) campaign during October 2014 and 2015, covering print, billboards, television, radio and in-store fixtures.
Sold 30% cheaper than standard fresh produce, an average of 1.2 tonnes of ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables were sold in Intermarché stores during the first two days of the campaign. The retailer said that as well as recording a 300% increase in mentions of Intermarché on social media during the first week of the initiative, five of its competitors subsequently launched a similar offer.
Similarly, Dutch retailer Albert Heijn launched its ‘Buitenbeentjes’ (Misfits) range of imperfect fruits and vegetables in late 2014, which included apples, cucumbers, oranges, kiwifruit and peppers.
A spokesman for the supermarket operator says the aim of the initiative was to show customers that imperfect fruits and vegetables were still perfectly fine to eat, explaining that this was done by emphasising that although the products looked different, they tasted the same.
“We, as Albert Heijn, have many ways we try to prevent food waste, or at least come up with a non-wasteful solution: we decrease the price close to [a product’s] end date, food that is too close to its end date will go straight to food kitchens before it even hits our stores, and even our waste is not wasted but will be recycled as green energy,” he comments.
Where next for the UK?
Back in the UK, Friends of the Earth is supporting the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill, which aims to require large supermarkets, manufacturers and distributors to reduce their food waste by no less than 30% by 2025 and to enter into formal agreements with food redistribution organisations to require large supermarkets and food manufacturers to disclose levels of food waste in their supply chain.
The organisation is calling on MPs to support the bill when it returns to Parliament in late January 2016.
Regardless of whether the bill is finally passed into law, what is clear is that there are many twists and turns yet to come in the debate over how to make best use of ‘wonky’ fruits and vegetables, and still more that could be done to avoid food waste.
See what else UK retailers are doing to tackle waste: