With harvests of British fruits and vegetables cut by 25 percent after the driest March in 59 years, the wettest June and autumn floods, the UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s is doing the unthinkable. Sainsbury’s is allowing stores to put “ugly,” blemished, misshapen, knobby fruits and vegetables on the shelves, the Guardian reports. As much as 20 to 40 percent of UK produce is rejected due to its appearance and is often simply plowed back into the ground, says the UK Soil Association.
Contending that too much food is rejected purely because it does not meet cosmetic standards, food and poverty activists are hailing Sainsbury’s decision. Drought, frost, rain, wind: while leaving their nutritional value unscathed, the weather is not kind to fruits’ and vegetables’ appearance. The Guardian also notes that supermarkets’ demand for good-looking produce ultimately drives up prices, as farmers raise these for the food that is considered acceptable.
Judith Batchelar, director of Sainsbury’s food, acknowledges that stocking produce with an “unusual appearance” is something of an about-face:
“We’ve taken the decision to radically change our approach to buying British fruit and vegetables as a result of this year’s unseasonal weather. This may mean a bit more mud on peas or strawberries that are a little smaller than usual, but our customers understand and love the idea.”
The European Union and the UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) set the “technical specifications” for the “size, shape and skin finish” of produce in British stores. But as The Ecologist observes, these standards are “based on aesthetics and bares no correlation to taste and nutritional value.” Similarly in the U.S., the “cosmetic appearance” of fruits and vegetables refers to “external attributes that do not significantly affect yield, taste, or nutritional value,” according to the EPA‘s An Overview of Fruit and Vegetable Standards Relating to Cosmetic Appearance and Pesticide Use.
That is, the “cosmetic appearance” of produce is something of a concern on its own, in tacit (if understated) recognition of how market forces bear on the purchase of fruits and vegetables.
Stores and Consumers: Are Both to Blame?
It is not clear if stores bear all the responsibility for the demand for perfect-looking produce. We consumers have become accustomed to automatically reaching for the perfect apple and the snow-white cauliflower, says Nick Turnbull, the technical manager for Branstons, a large-scale grower, packer and distributor of potatoes, in The Ecologist:
‘There’s a disconnect between what people say and what they actually do. People shop with their eyes. We say of course bruising and blemishes doesn’t matter but then walk into Tesco and buy the brightest looking pack. We all do it.”
People are simply no longer accustomed to seeing fruits and vegetables with holes or curious bumps, in part because so many fewer people grow their own food.
Indeed, things have gotten to the point that growers have created perfectly red and round tomatoes that look pretty but taste terrible. “At a time when we’re supposed to be moving towards food security and reducing green house gas emissions we’re still doing things based on market as opposed to ecological forces. It’s crazy,” comments Davey Jones of Bangor University in The Ecologist.
One fruit buyer at the British supermarket chain Waitrose found that people were willing to buy blemished produce if it was sold at a discount (a dozen weather-damaged apples for the price of six); ugly produce is perceived as worth less. So it will be interesting to see if Sainsbury customers indeed “understand and love the idea” of buying potatoes and peppers that do not meet the ideal of perfect produce.
Shouldn’t the “beauty” of fruits and vegetables be judged not by their appearance, but their taste and nutritional worth?
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