Misshapen fruit and ugly veg….is it time that retailers relaxed cosmetic specifications?

           Vegetables_groupedbWould you eat a carrot with three roots or an overly curved cucumber? The contribution of "ugly" fruit and vegetables to food wastage is not a new problem but one that has moved in and out of the spotlight for several years.  A new BBC production "Hugh’s War on Waste", fronted by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, aims to reduce the amount of waste that Britain produces and is probably the first program in which a huge pile of parsnips made viewers very angry.  In the Program, Hugh visited a family ran farm that supplied Parsnips to a major UK supermarket.  The strict policies imposed by the supermarket on how the parsnips should look meant that up to 40% of the farm’s root veg, equating to 20 tonnes of parsnips -or enough to fill nearly 300 shopping trolleys -never made it to the shelves.  That was just one week’s wastage.

These cosmetic specifications, common to all UK supermarkets, detail the exact shape, size and colour that produce should be and are not related to its nutritional quality. These stringent criteria mean that a high proportion of produce that does not meet the standards is rejected from the supply chain resulting in financial losses for the businesses involved. If an alternative use for the produce is found it’ll involve the farmer selling at a reduced price, and when transport costs are included it is often not worthwhile financially.  More likely, the produce is ploughed back into the land or left to rot. 

The marketing standards on “ugly” fruit were originally introduced by the EU using rules laid down by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).  The main justifications for the standards were to “help facilitate international trade, encourage high quality production, improve profitability and protect consumer interests”.  Some examples from the EU’s bizarre regulations include: Class I cucumbers must "be reasonably well shaped and practically straight (maximum height of the arc: 10 mm per 10 cm of the length of cucumber)". Class II "slightly crooked cucumbers may have a maximum height of the arc of 20 mm per 10 cm of length of the cucumber". Carrots must be “free from secondary roots”, and any apple “less than 50 mm in diameter or 70 g in weight” cannot be sold.  In 2009, some relaxation of the rules occurred when the EU revoked the cosmetic standards for 26 different types of fruit and vegetables, and instead introduced a general marketing standard (GMS).  The GMS has a definition of "sound, fair and of marketable quality" for produce, requires them to bear the full name of their country of origin, and has fewer specific cosmetic specifications (10 instead of 36).  The strict standards still remain in place for 10 products including citrus fruit, apples and lettuces and supermarkets can also maintain private product standards.

Even with the 2009 relaxation of cosmetic specifications the deluge of wonky veg on our supermarket shelves has failed to materialise, and a report titled Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not published three years later by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers revealed:

“30% of what is harvested from the field never actually reaches the marketplace (primarily the supermarket) due to trimming, quality selection and failure to conform to purely cosmetic criteria”. 

It could be argued that supermarkets are simply responding to customer demand, and many claim that their hands are tied by consumers’ high expectation for cosmetic appearance; even if they say that they do not mind less attractive produce their behaviour indicates otherwise.  But is it just our lack of exposure to unusual looking produce that means we assume there is something wrong with anything that doesn’t have a perfect exterior?  Supermarkets have had to abandon cosmetic specifications in the past, for example unseasonal weather during 2012 saw the appearance of misshapen fruit and veg on our supermarket shelves.  During 2007 extreme weather wiped out 40% of the UK’s potato harvest, but imports did not increase; instead supermarkets temporarily relaxed their standards for potatoes.  Sales of potatoes remained high and none of the supermarkets reported an increase in customer dissatisfaction.  So it seems consumers are not appalled by wonky produce, perhaps it is time that supermarkets offered customers more buying choice?  In France, Intermarché, France’s third largest supermarket chain, ran an incredibly successful campaign "Inglorious fruit and vegetables" that celebrated the “ugly” produce that is often thrown away by growers and considered unfit for consumption, glorifying the “grotesque apple”, “the disfigured eggplant”, “the ugly carrot”, “the failed lemon”, and “the ridiculous potato”.  Intermarché gave the produce their own aisle in the supermarket; buying the fruit and veg that farmers would usually throw away allowed the produce to be sold for 30% cheaper than others on offer.  Finally, they designed and distributed vegetable soups and fruit juices made with the defective vegetables to prove they are just as flavourful as their perfect counterparts.  Intermarché reported average sales of 1.2 tonnes per store during the first two days of the campaign.

The problems of cosmetic specifications also have impacts beyond our shores.  A recent report Food waste in Kenya: Uncovering food waste in the horticultural export supply chain from the UK based environmental organisation Feedback reveals the devastating effects that cosmetic specifications have on the livelihoods of Kenyan farmers.  Currently, horticultural exports make up to 23% of Kenya’s GDP. Fruit and vegetables are the second and third most important exports, with French beans being the main vegetable crop grown. The report found that, on average, 30% of food is rejected at farm level and this figure goes up to 50% when the rejects in the exporter pack houses are included.  Wastage is further exasperated by practices like that occurring in the French bean industry where beans are routinely toped and tailed so that they can fit uniformly into packaging used by retailers.  This activity results in an average wastage of 30-40%. Furthermore, importers often abuse cosmetic specifications to cover up order cancellations due to last minute forecast adjustments.

So what would relaxation of the cosmetic specifications bring?  Well, aside from greater consumer choice there would be impacts throughout the whole global food supply system.  Without the strict legislation the producer would be able to sell more food, thereby wasting less.  Farmers could plant less as they wouldn’t need to grow excessive amounts of produce to meet the demands of the specifications – reducing costs for the farmer.  Furthermore, less produce means less land, water and agrochemicals, so a switch in cosmetic specifications would benefit the environment and could also help in the fight against global warming.  A 2013 report Food wastage footprint: Impacts on natural resources from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) revealed that:

“Without accounting for GHG emissions from land use change, the carbon footprint of food produced and [not] eaten is estimated to 3.3 Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent: as such, food wastage ranks as the third top emitter after USA and China.”  

This figure does cover the carbon footprint of all wastage that occurs from farm to fork, but cosmetic standards will be contributing and could represent a quick win in the reduction of CO2 emissions if abolished. Finally, allowing more ugly fruit and veg onto the shelves would secure farmers livelihoods. They’re the ones who have to bear the costs of the supermarkets strict criteria, relaxing them could stop farms operating at a loss and going out of business.

The ‘War on Waste’ is wake-up call that something has to change; you can help in the fight by signing up to the #Wastenot petition and don’t forget to buy those ‘ugly’ vegetables!

References and further reading:

Feedback Global. 2015. Food waste in Kenya: Uncovering food waste in the horticultural supply chain. London, UK.

FAO. 2011. Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes and prevention. Rome, Italy

FAO. 2013. Food wastage footprint: Impacts on natural resources (summary report).

Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME). 2013. Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not. London, UK.

White, A., Gallegos, D., Hundloe, T. 2011. The impact of fresh produce specifications on the Australian food and nutrition system: a case study of the north Queensland banana industry. Public Health Nutrition. 14, 1489-1495

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