Consumers typically purchase the best-looking fruits and vegetables, which cause farmers to toss between 20 to 40 percent of fresh produce that is not cosmetically satisfactory, according to estimates from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). However, in Europe, campaigns to promote “ugly” produce and therefore to reduce food waste are spreading.
Ugly produce are fruits and vegetables that are less than perfect in appearance, yet provide the same good quality in terms of both taste and texture, as the fruit people tend to favor. The defects are superficial, such as a misshapen eggplant or bumpy apple, yet retailers continue to reject these products from farmers. However, Mintel’s Fruit and Vegetables U.K. 2014 report found 48 percent of people who bought fruit and vegetables agreed they would buy oddly shaped products if they were of good quality.
In order to encourage people to purchase ugly produce and to dispel misconceptions that quality is about appearance, Intermarché, France’s third-largest supermarket, launched the Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign. It created an aisle in a supermarket in Provins, outside Paris, for the produce that would have been discarded and sold it at a 30 percent discount, as well as drinks and soups made with the products. In television commercials and print advertisements, Intermarché promoted a series of posters with images such as the “ugly carrot” and “hideous orange” with clever captions including, “Elected Miss Mashed Potato 2014.” Marcel, the creative agency behind the campaign, says the store traffic rose 24 percent and 1.2 tons of misshaped produce were sold in just two days. Due to its success, this temporary experiment returned in October in all of its 1,800 stores.
The ugly fruit trend spread throughout Europe. In the U.K., increasing numbers of supermarkets are following the French and stocking up on ugly produce. Even Jamie Oliver is promoting ugly produce; after approaching Asda, the second largest U.K. supermarket, to sell ugly produce at a 30 percent discount, the retailer’s research showed that 65 percent of its customers were open to the idea of ugly produce. Similarly, in Portugal, a cooperative called Fruta Feia (Ugly Fruit) buys produce that would not make it to the shelves and sells it to customers for lower prices.
According to the UNEP, 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year, which causes serious economic losses, as well as harm to natural resources. The acceptance of ugly produce reduces food waste and benefits all those in the supply chain: growers, retailers, and consumers. The ugly produce program allows for farmers to make increased income by selling produce they formerly would not have been able to, sales to increase in grocery stores, and consumers to purchase healthy food for lower prices.
While the trend is spreading in Europe, the U.S. is also making valiant efforts to utilize ugly produce, as Jeanne von Zastrow, senior director of sustainability, Food Marketing Institute, notes.
“I believe some retailers are looking at the success of the Inglorious Foods campaign and it has really ignited some innovation and good will among our members. U.S. retailers have employed consistent practices over the years of pulling out less-than-perfect produce and discounting it in time for it to not be wasted. Many supermarkets buy a crop in total, and donate the B-grade produce to food banks,” she says.
However, Zastrow addresses the challenges the trend faces in the U.S. due to Americans’ more drastic negative perceptions of ugly produce.
“U.S. shoppers demand beautiful produce, which is a challenge. Since produce has a short shelf life, it is often difficult to sell produce items that are perfectly delicious, but not pretty,” she says.
Nevertheless, the U.S. is trying to grow the market for ugly produce. Bon Appetit Management Co., a food service company owned by Compass Group USA, launched a program called Imperfectly Delicious Produce, in which the company buys ugly produce to be used in meals served in its 500 cafes spread throughout 33 states. Hungry Harvest, a community-supported agriculture venture in Maryland and Washington, D.C., sells boxes of ugly produce and for every box sold, another box is donated to less fortunate families. Andronico’s Community Markets, a five-store gourmet grocery chain in California, sells ugly produce that local growers do not sell in large bins outside its stores for discounted prices. U.S. supermarkets might soon see plenty of ugly produce in the aisles.
“I think you’re already seeing the trend having a foundation and continuing to take a stronghold in the [U.S.] marketplace,” says Frank S. Paone, director of marketing at Procacci Brothers.
“The ushering in of the crave for more ‘natural’ food products has certainly helped the cause for ugly produce in America,” he says. “Aesthetic deformities happen—they’re a part of growing produce and retailers are helping to use it as a marketing tool that’s showing success. It’s always eye-catching to see something that stands out from the norm on a display and when you merchandise or sign it, it helps sell it that much more. The bigger emphasis is on grower safety and values, as well as flavor, which is the most important to consumers.”
“When we started growing our Uglyripe Heirloom Tomato over 10 years ago, we knew it went against the grain of how other tomatoes on the shelf looked,” continues Paone. “We also knew that the taste was what mattered and we didn’t care that they were ‘uglier’…tomato growers and other produce growers are doing well in finding opportunity to put flavor at the top and embracing the outcome that their product is not all going to look the same.”
Pantano is an editorial intern for Wiley U.S. B2B editorial division.