The war on wonky: how cosmetic standards create mountains of food waste

In 2007, food campaigner Tristram Stuart visited M. H. Poskitt Carrots which supplied carrots to Asda. What he saw shocked him: carrots were continually discarded for not being the right size or shape, being broken, having a cleft or blemish, or not being the perfect colour. One of the most outrageous reasons for rejecting them was because they weren’t straight enough: ‘Asda insist that all carrots should be straight, so customers can peel the full length in one easy stroke’.

The business sells many of these carrots to food processors, but only ones that are deemed “oversized” because smaller carrots require more labour to handle. As the last resort, carrots are given to livestock. However, this only recuperates 10% of their value for the farmer, and wastes the time and energy cutting and washing the carrots to make them fit for human consumption.

Overall, almost a third of carrots that day were rejected despite being perfectly good to eat.

This story – the imposition of strict cosmetic standards, selling farmers short and patronising consumers – is one that has continued more than a decade later. In 2009, the Soil Association estimated that 20-40% of produce is rejected in the UK due to unrealistic cosmetic standards. A study by the University of Edinburgh in 2018 found the number to be more than a third, suggesting that not much has improved.

Who decides what was “perfect”?

What came first – did consumers demand “perfect” produce, or did retailers impose these standards on the market? Stuart found that M&S makes their sandwich manufacturers discard the ends of a loaf of bread, plus one more slice at either end, so that the slices of bread in their sandwiches will all be uniform. This means that four slices, amounting to 13,000 slices of bread or 17% of each loaf are thrown away every day, in the name of perfection. Is this our fault?

As I have written before, Susanne Freidberg describes how the obsession with “perfect” items was driven by aggressive marketing tactics in the early 20th century. In the 1920s, fruit farmers in the USA tried to outcompete each other with more and more ambitious advertising, and their produce had to live up to these new standards. The California Fruit Growers Exchange ‘established strict quality grades based on size, shape, colour and degree of flawlessness’, and without these, farmers would not be able to sell under the CFGE label.

Advert for Sunkist oranges, a member of the CFGE. From Orange County Public Library

With greater means of transportation and refrigeration, produce could be sold all over the world, and these standards gained global dominance. As a result, consumers became accustomed to such items.

On the other hand, Stuart considers that ‘if customers see a bag of wonky produce next to a similarly priced bag of glistening, uniform produce, they will tend to choose the latter’. But if retailers only offered one bag of produce of all different shapes and sizes, instead of marking them against each other, would that make a difference?

There is evidence that it would. A recent food waste story illustrates that in Tunisia, where “wonky” produce is the norm, fruits and vegetables of all shapes and sizes are sold together in markets without customers differentiating between “perfect” and “imperfect” options.

Stuart recounts another example where cosmetic standards were proven meaningless. In 2007, floods in the UK caused potato crops to fail. To make up for the losses, supermarkets relaxed their cosmetic standards so more potatoes were available on the market. ‘They let in potatoes that would normally have been rejected for being too big, too wonky, having “eyes”, or not being perfectly smooth and rounded: in other words, potatoes that looked like potatoes rather than billiard balls’. No supermarkets reported customers being unhappy with the change.

Retailers are not the only drivers of these standards, however. The European Union set very strict rules to categorise fruit and vegetables into three marketing standards: Extra Class, Class I and Class II. These rules were supposedly relaxed in 2008, but they still apply to the majority of produce in the European market.

The UK still opts for these classes too. Defra (the government department responsible for food and the environment) has on its website the strict standards that produce must live up to. Apples, table grapes, kiwis, oranges, lemons, limes, peaches, nectarines, pears, strawberries, lettuce, sweet peppers and tomatoes have to comply with Specific Marketing Standards, the strictest codes for cosmetic appearance. The Extra Class standard for apples is below.

Specific Marketing Standards for applies in the UK

What are the solutions?

I got in touch with Tristram Stuart to ask whether he thinks anything has improved in the 14 years since his book was published. ‘Some things are better,’ he says. ‘Lots of great enterprises have popped up selling what was previously discarded, e.g. Oddbox here and Imperfect Foods in the USA. Supermarkets started selling wonky veg in the 2010s and marketing wonky veg has become a global phenomenon.’

Some supermarkets separate ‘wonky’ produce from ‘perfect’ produce

However if the study by the University of Edinburgh is anything to go by, change is not happening fast enough. Other recent stories describe where retailer standards have forced farmers to abandon their crop. The following story comes from Growing Communities in 2021:

‘This week we helped out a Spanish melon farmer in a tight spot. His melons were rejected by a packer (the guys who supply supermarkets) as they weren’t up to the required size. As a result the farmer, who had already paid import duties and transport also had to pay for the melons to be disposed of. So we bought them instead.

While it’s great to help farmers out like this, we don’t believe mopping up after supermarkets’ wasteful ways is enough. The way we work with farmers goes beyond food rescue towards system change. While food waste-oriented box schemes seem to be doing good, the farmers are still forced to sell their “rejects” for lower prices, leaving farmers underpaid. This won’t actually change the food waste problem that’s embedded in the supermarket system.’

Both Poskitt’s farm in 2009 and the melon farmer in 2021 had some solutions to reducing waste – by giving it to livestock or sending their produce on to rescue box schemes – but both times, they were underpaid for their perfectly good harvests.

Stuart says that opening the farm gate has helped. ‘We sourced loads of veg and fruit from farmers and then set up the gleaning network, so some stuff goes to charity.’ Gleaning is an ancient practice which allows volunteers to rescue produce from fields that would otherwise go to waste. Much of it is then distributed to good causes.

The root of the problem, however, still lingers. Although some rescue schemes like Oddbox exist, these companies make money from the waste stream which does not tackle the underlying issue of food waste due to cosmetic standards. Separating fruit and vegetables into “perfect” versus “wonky” categories can exacerbate the problem. “Wonky” produce is usually sold cheaper which does a disservice to farmers. Furthermore, supermarkets make more money when they can justify selling “Extra Class” produce at higher prices. Even Imperfect Foods says ‘People want to prevent waste, but the system makes new habits and behaviours really challenging’.

To go further, the solution is to remove cosmetic standards altogether.

What can we do as consumers?

Although retailers will insist that their customers won’t buy “wonky” produce, all the evidence points the other way. A poll in August 2022 revealed that almost 90% of consumers would be happy buying imperfect fruit and vegetables. Another wonky scheme, Culinary Misfits, highlighted that if “perfect” produce is what people have ever known, that is the produce they will choose: ‘Of course people buy regular produce because that’s what they see on ads and posters.’ But as illustrated by the story from Tunisia, customers do not care about cosmetic appearances if “imperfection” is the default choice in front of them.

So what can we do?

Better Food Traders map of where you can buy local produce
  • Support local growers and small veg box schemes. Small-scale distributors like Growing Communities accept vegetables and fruit of all shapes of sizes, meaning no produce is rejected at all, and they consider having wonky produce the norm – which it should be everywhere! Better Food Traders has a handy map to help you find a local veg trader near you.
  • If you do shop in supermarkets, make it your mission to seek out the ugly items and give them a good home. Supermarkets may start to sneak wonky items into the regular batches of fruit and veg to see if customers ignore them. So if you see a misshapen or blemished item in a regular section, take it!
  • Go gleaning! You can find out how to get started here.
  • Spread the word! The more people know about the wonky waste scandal, the faster things will change. Speak out and act whenever you can to fight the war on wonky food.

Published by foodwastestories

The first food waste magazine.

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