Stories of rejected fruit and vegetables have made for sorry reading in recent weeks. Their crime? Not passing the supermarkets' beauty parade.
According to revelations by investigative journalist Felicity Lawrence, produce need not be poor quality or badly marked to end up in the waste pile -- simply the wrong size, shape or colour, under rigid restrictions imposed by the big retailers. This approach is so precise that a carrot half a centimetre too short will be discarded. So strict are the criteria for potatoes, for example, that many organic farmers find it isn't commercially viable to continue. Although grade-outs of goods is accepted practice and some unwanted produce is recycled for other uses, with wastage now at around 30% that's a lot of perfectly edible food going to waste.
Pressure is felt at every stage of the supply chain. Growers fear their fruit and vegetables will be rejected, the packers worry about not meeting targets and supermarkets are concerned about keeping customers happy.
But do shoppers actually care if their apples aren't perfectly round or the potatoes are knobbly? If the rising number of people buying fruit and veg is any indication, the answer is no. In 2002-2003 there was a 28% increase in sales through farmers' markets, box schemes and farm shops, according to the Soil Association. Vendors selling through these channels don't have to meet the same rigid criteria as those selling to supermarkets. It's not unusual to purchase two-pronged carrots or undersized apples at a farmers' market. Other factors such as shopping as a lifestyle choice or as a political expression come into play when consumers choose to buy from these sources, but the fact that the produce doesn't always score a perfect 10 in the looks department clearly isn't a deterrent.
As many as 73% of expert testers in Good Housekeeping's organic vs non-organic blind taste test preferred the taste of the organic products. Interestingly, few commented negatively on the less-than-perfect appearance of the produce. In fact, many were in favour of its more ?natural' look.
Perhaps it's time for supermarkets to allow so-called "imperfect" fruit and veg back on the shelves alongside their more beautiful cousins. Surely consumers nowadays are savvy enough to be the judges?