Natural & Inglorious: The Rise of the Ugly Food Revolution

Naturally Imperfect Apple | Photo: Loblaw Companies
Naturally Imperfect Apple | Photo: Loblaw Companies

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but sometimes looks really don’t matter. Take misshapen and imperfect fruits and veggies, for instance. Until now, they’ve been chopped and whirred into soup or sometimes straight into compost instead of hitting store shelves. That’s despite the fact that much of this “too ugly” produce has nothing wrong with it beyond appearance.

That may all soon change as the Sterling Rice Group has named the selling of imperfect produce as a top culinary trend for 2015.

Waste Not Want Not

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, approximately one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally. Per year, those losses amount to an astonishing 1.3 billion tons.

In Canada, the cost of food waste amounts to roughly $31B per year. That’s higher than the combined gross domestic product of the world’s 29 poorest countries, says the 2014 report. And that’s only the tip of the ice berg. Assuming the cumulative cost of associated wastes is two and a half times greater, as suggested by the FAO, the overall cost of food waste in Canada is well over $100 billion/year. It’s estimated that 30% of the fruit and vegetables grown in North America never hit store shelves for aesthetic reasons.

Don’t Dismiss a $31-billion Food Waste Problem

Loblaw’s Naturally Imperfect Produce

That’s why, this week, Loblaw Companies announced its campaign to sell Naturally Imperfect apples and potatoes. The produce will be available in Great Canadian Superstores and no frills locations in Ontario and select Maxi retails in Quebec, with the hopes to expand to a national level.

Naturally Imperfect Potatoes | Photo: Loblaw Companies
Naturally Imperfect Potatoes | Photo: Loblaw Companies

“Produce involved in the no name Naturally Imperfect program was previously used in juices, sauces or soups, or may not have been harvested due to their small size,” according to the release. “With this program, Loblaw Companies is working to ensure farmers have a market for smaller, misshapen fruit ensuring it does not go to waste.”

This isn’t the first time “ugly” fruit and vegetables have been offered to consumers. Intermarché in France might just be credited with starting, or at the very least fuelling, the ugly food revolution fire. The chain marketed its ‘disfigured’ and ‘grotesque’ vegetables as just that, and, like Loblaw, at 30% cheaper than their runway counterparts.

disfigured eggplant

“Most of the fruit and veg isn’t ugly, it’s just not right for sale – perhaps too small or too large or with a blemish on the skin,” a company spokesperson told Connexion. “Perfectly edible but not a good-looking product. Rather than throw food away we looked for a way to continue to sell it and decided to offer it at a discount.”

In the town of Provins, France, the chain sold 1.2 tons of ugly produce in the first two days of the promotion, and saw similar success at other retails. The company ended up bringing it back for a week in October to all 1800 stores.

Other initiatives have involved “Misfit,” “Weather Blemished” and unwanted produce in Alberta, the United Kingdom and Portugal. And, there are campaigns cropping up worldwide.

Socially Ugly

Those opposed to the growing interest in selling ugly produce tend to believe it has a place elsewhere — in homeless shelters and food banks. But, for the most part, social media platforms have lit up with the love of ugly produce. We could very well be seeing the start of the Ugly Food Revolution.

Let us know what you think of 30% off ugly fruit and veg. Would you buy it? Leave a comment below, or send a tweet mentioning @realagriculture. If it’s ‘ugly’ enough, we might just add it to the list above!

5 thoughts on “Natural & Inglorious: The Rise of the Ugly Food Revolution

  1. I’m really disappointed that RealAgriculture has towed this line from Loblaws’ marketing department! While I absolutely believe that this is great marketing, it really bugs me that they’re making it sound like farmers throw away billions of dollars worth of food because it’s “ugly”!! Last time I checked, the ugly food has always been sold to processors for soups and juices and all sorts of good things that do make it to grocery store shelves. If you read the study that they cite, 47% of food waste is at the consumer level and another 20% is at the processor level, 10% is at retail and 9% is at hotels and restaurants – none of that has anything to do with “ugly”.
    Let’s be honest – this is a way for Loblaws to buy cheap food and sell it at a good profit. I wonder if they’re paying farmers more than processor rates for these fruits and vegetables? They’re making farmers sound like wasteful villains and they’ve come to save our food supply! I just would’ve expected you guys to dig into this a little deeper and analyze whether this is good for farmers or not.

    1. Interesting perspective, Joanne. I didn’t read the campaign as anti-farmer at all, but this is the first time I’ve heard about it so perhaps there are unintended consequences I’m not aware of. As for whether grocers will pay more than processors for “imperfect” produce, I guess that lies in the commercial relationship between farmers and buyers and farmers will continue to make the choice that is in their commercial best interest.

      As for the public perception campaign, I don’t think this can be any more harmful to farmers than any other marketing campaign taken on by grocery store chains. I actually read it as grocers taking responsibility for their own participation in food waste and deciding not to reject imperfect produce, but make it available for purchase.

      Overall, I think by presenting a more “real” picture of the results of agricultural production, these campaigns ride the tide of “authenticity” that appeals to today’s food eaters. The naturally imperfect campaign harkens back to a a time when more of us ate from home gardens and we saw all kinds of weird and wonderful things pop up in our own backyards. In the end all marketing has an air of silliness about it, but I don’t know if we need to be up in arms about this particular campaign

  2. As a farmer and market gardener I have always sold only the best of my produce and fruits…and eat or feed my livestock the rest ….I wonder what the stores will be paying for the ugly veggies..not much I bet selling them at a great profit….when I grew cukes for Bicks many years ago one got a meer pitance for larger cukes yet they were processed into pickles and relish that cost a fair bit…Just think its pretty bad when the stores are not wanting to cash in on cull produce and fruits that would be otherwise made into juice and the like…there is alot more waste when you cut up and peel the ugly shaped items…so you want to buy it as cheap as possible.

  3. The retailer will pass the risk back down the chain to who ever is producing the product.
    Will it encourage more people to eat produce or will it just lower the price of the quality produce? I also wonder what CFIA has done as it will not be eligible for a grade. Most potatoes already carry a Canada #2 as the size spec is wider than a #1.
    We feed a lot of produce that could fit into this category because people shop with their eyes.

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