FOODSERVICE COMPANIES would love to get their hands on the ugly produce that supermarkets discard at the farm gate. But as Vacherin has discovered, it's easier said than done.
Who cares what a carrot or apple looks like – it’s the taste that matters. Or is it?
Supermarkets have long argued that their strict cosmetic standards are in place because it’s what their customers demand. The waste left at the farm gate therefore isn’t their fault – they will relentlessly promote the data showing that stores are responsible for just 1-2% of all food waste.
Morrisons tried to put this theory to the test with a small trial involving courgettes. Under pressure from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his latest campaign, War on Waste, the retailer offered shoppers the choice, side by side, of class 1 and class 2 produce.
“We suspect they will reach out for the prettier ones,” the company’s PR boss told the celebrity chef. And they did. The class 1s sold “twice as fast” as their uglier cousins. But there was a blemish on Morrisons’ trial – the two types of courgettes were sold at the same price. This rendered it pretty pointless.
The French supermarket Intermarché sold its fruits & légumes moches (inglorious fruit and veg) at a 30% discount and had rather different results. In Portugal, the Fruta Feia cooperative is also proving a hit with shoppers and farmers alike. Some manufacturers are already spying an opportunity in ugly here, too; Les Gueules Cassées, a firm selling deformed fresh produce, has just launched an English website under the Ugly Mugs brand.
There is certainly no shortage of supply. As the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ seminal report in 2013 suggested: “Although mature, developed societies have substantially more efficient, effective and well-engineered market logistics, 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.”
In Fearnley-Whittingstall’s series the focus fell on a parsnip producer which ended up going bust after years of throwing away 30% to 40% of the crop in what was described as an “arms race” of cosmetic standards between the supermarkets. That race to the beautiful resulted in 300 shopping trolleys of wasted parsnips every week.
New ugly product brands may well save some other farmers from going the same way, but surely there is an opportunity for foodservice companies too? In fact, isn’t much of the class 2 produce ending up in commercial kitchens anyway?
“That’s a myth,” says Anthony Kingsley, the sustainability lead for upmarket catering firm Vacherin. There may have been “lots of conversation” but the complexities of the system mean there has been “very little practical action”.
Michael Barker is the editor of the trade publication Fresh Produce Journal. He says it’s impossible to say whether or not catering companies are snaffling large quantities of retailer-rejected produce. “There is such a lack of data on fresh produce usage that nobody ever seems to put a finger on these things.”
What we do know is that something needs to change. Vacherin recently became one of the few willing to step in to tackle these “systemic issues” when it launched a new range for its chefs called I’mperfect to “champion imperfect produce”. Chefs receive emails detailing the weekly availability of a range of produce that hasn’t passed the cosmetic standards of retailers but is “perfectly good to eat”. It’s also up to 20% cheaper.
Though diners can’t tell which dishes contain I’mperfect produce and which don’t, the company is keen to communicate the initiative and encourage more of the sector to do the same. The foodservice industry is in a perfect place to help address this issue, says Vacherin’s director of food, Dan Kelly. “We are not as constrained as retailers, seldom need the same volumes that they do, and we prepare produce before serving it to consumers. We have found that it actually saves us money.”
But it hasn’t been easy. Kingsley says finding the right supplier has taken two years. There can be a short window of opportunity and unknown quantities available – supermarkets still change orders overnight, regardless of the grocery code of practice and adjudicator.
Kingsley seems keen to use the initiative to spotlight both the opportunity for caterers and the poor performance of retailers, who he believes are sidestepping their responsibilities on waste. “Small farmers get locked into contracts with large retailers because farmers are promised the purchase of entire crops, until the retailers decide cosmetic standards aren’t good enough,” he explains. “Then the farmers have little time and large quantities to sell, and are locked into exclusive contract deals. There is a systemic problem causing millions of tonnes of edible produce to go to waste.”
As far as the diner is concerned it comes down to awareness. It’s about teaching the consumer that cosmetics do not reflect the quality of the produce, he adds. Perhaps people already understand more than we think, but the supermarkets are turning a blind eye. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.