The cult of beautiful food is possibly peaking at this very moment. With everyone instagramming their breakfast in all its Lo-Fi glory, we want our food to be beautiful and look perfect. Blemished means unhealthy and despite the rise of knobby heirloom tomatoes, we still value good looking food. Yet shape has little to do with the taste and freshness of a fruit or vegetable, and consumers’ desire for produce perfection leads to billions of dollars in food waste each year. A new report from the National Resources Defense Council cites that $165 billion in edible food is thrown out of fridges, from grocery stores and from farms each year. Much of that waste is due simply to expiration dates which are a loose indicator of freshness, at best. But it’s more than just the tyranny of the expiration date, it’s also the tyranny of food aesthetics that is leading to so much food loss when billions of people around the world still cannot afford three meals a day and the price of food climbs ever higher. The USDA stipulates that all commercially grown produce must be at least 90 percent blemish-free. Though the growth of farmer’s markets has provided some promise in terms of reeducating people to accept what normal fruits and vegetables actually look like, solutions for ugly food waste mostly seem to be coming from the nonprofit quarter. Organizations like New Jersey-based Farmers Against Hunger enable farmers to donate their extra produce to local food charities. But this is America, and if ugly produce is to have a chance, only a market-based solution will ensure their disfigured survival.
Strangely, the Europeans are beating us to it. Last fall after a turbulent growing season, the British were left with a bounty of aesthetically impaired produce. But instead of rejecting the deformed crops, Sainsbury’s, one of Britain’s largest supermarket chains, relaxed their standards and put the misshapen, discolored and undersized produce on their shelves and hoped for their customers’ understanding. Since then there has been a veritable outcry against the food waste and the estimated 30% of UK fruit and vegetables that are never harvested simply because of their imperfect appearance. But it seems that at least in the U.K., consumers are ready for a change. Last year the Institution of Mechanical Engineers published a report that surveyed over 2000 people, 80% of whom said they would buy imperfect produce. A few European grocers are taking notice. German supermarket chain Edeka, just started a pilot program to sell unconventional looking produce and Suisse chain Coop launched their “unique” food line in a third of its stores in August. In the Netherlands where 10% of ugly produce is wasted, a Dutch company called Krom Kommer is “committed to crazy vegetables” linking growers, wholesalers, restaurant and consumers to take a chance on homely fruits and vegetables. You can also buy from them direct on their website where products made out of misshaped produce are sold (check out their Christmas gift basket featuring some nice looking cheese (from a deformed cow?), if you can read Dutch). Hopefully ugly produce won’t just stay big in Europe but will make the leap across the pond to end the tyranny of the beautiful and fill more bellies along the way.