One of the comments I read about the “Dirty Dozen” list is the fact that consumers are to blame for the use of pesticides, because it is we shoppers who insist on perfect produce. That is a simplistic thought about how chemicals are used to prevent food loss, but the issue of retail appearance standards and their effect on food waste is drawing attention.
A recent Food and Agriculture Organization report, called Global Food Losses and Food Waste, was commissioned by FAO from the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK).
From the report:
In the fruits and vegetables commodity group (Figure 6), losses in agricultural production dominate for all three industrialized regions, mostly due to postharvest fruit and vegetable grading caused by quality standards set by retailers.
Waste at the end of the food supply chain is also substantial in all three regions, with 15-30% of purchases by mass discarded by consumers. In developing regions losses in agricultural production dominate total losses throughout the food supply chain.
Losses during postharvest and distribution stages are also severe, which can be explained by deterioration of perishable crops in the warm and humid climate of many developing countries as well as by seasonality that leads to unsalable gluts.
A case study from the report:
Carrot quality standards, by the supermarket chain Asda
As research for the book ‘Waste – understanding the global food scandal’ (2009), Tristram Stuart visited several British farms in order to understand how quality standards affect the level of food waste. Among others, Stuart visited M.H. Poskitt Carrots in Yorkshire, a major supplier to the supermarket chain Asda. At the farm, the author was shown large quantities of out-graded carrots, which, having a slight bend, were sent off as animal feed.
In the packing house, all carrots passed through photographic sensor machines, searching for aesthetic defects. Carrots that were not bright orange, had a blend or blemish or were broken were swept off into a livestock feed container. As staff at the farm put it: “Asda insist that all carrots should be straight, so customers can peel the full length in one easy stroke” (Stuart, 2009). In total, 25-30% of all carrots handled by M.H. Poskitt Carrots were out-graded. About half of these were rejected due to physical or aesthetic defects, such as being the wrong shape or size; being broken or having a cleft or a blemish.
A report from Europe from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service noted this about the FAO report:
The EU recently repealed a raft of its own fruit and vegetable marketing standards, allowing unconventionally shaped carrots and cucumbers to come back onto the market. The report comes as the world grapples with the question of how to feed a global population which is likely to hit 9 billion by 2050, without exacerbating climate change and environmental degradation through agricultural intensification. The FAO has predicted that food production will need to rise some 70 percent on current levels. Following publication of the report, EU Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos warned that subsidizing unsustainable commercial or consumer behavior would have no room in the next CAP.
More from the FAO report:
High ‘appearance quality standards’ from supermarkets for fresh products lead to food waste. Some produce is rejected by supermarkets at the farm gate due to rigorous quality standards concerning weight, size, shape and appearance of crops. Therefore, large portions of crops never leave the farms. Even though some rejected crops are used as animal feed, the quality standards might divert food originally aimed for human consumption to other uses (Stuart, 2009).
Prevention: Consumer surveys by supermarkets. Supermarkets seem convinced that consumers will not buy food which has the ‘wrong’ weight, size or appearance. Surveys do however show that consumers are willing to buy heterogeneous produce as long as the taste is not affected (Stuart, 2009). Consumers have the power to influence the quality standards. This could be done by questioning them and offering them a broader quality range of products in the retail stores.
We have seen similar loosening of fruit and vegetable marketing order quality requirements in the U.S., particularly in short crop years. Looking at the example of carrots, is Asda (or all retailers) to blame for the fact that 30% of the carrots are graded out? When it comes to ethical behavior, is it justifiable for retailers to insist on appearance standards that have nothing to do with nutrition or taste? What other markets can be developed for off-grade produce?
I tend to think that the invisible hand of the market is determining what fresh produce can be sold. There is no assurance that delivering more ugly fruits and vegetables to the retail fresh produce department would result in any less waste. In fact, the waste could be even greater, compounded by the cost of transport incurred.