Have you heard the one about the EU rules on straight bananas? P.C. Big Brother, nanny-state interference gone mad right? Well it would be, if it was true. The reality is, the EU regulations (for most fruit and veg) mean that produce must be clean, free from pests or diseases, not rotten, and labelled with the country of origin. They don't ban or prohibit the sale of any fruit or veg for aesthetic reasons.
However, misshapen, scarred, or otherwise cosmetically unfortunate fruit and veg are routinely rejected at the discretion supermarkets and retailers. Or else they are bought and sold at a substantial discount. This makes them less desirable and less valuable in the eyes of customers like you.
So why is that a big deal?
Well, for one thing, no matter how lumpy, cracked or forked a tomato, spud, or carrot is, they require the same inputs, energy and investment to grow as their aesthetically perfect counterparts. If sold at a discount, or discarded, that investment is wasted, and all that energy spent on produce, that ultimately gets thrown, out really adds up.
In a time when we’re really waking up to the huge issues of energy conservation and food waste, discriminating against perfectly fresh, nutritious food for the sake of a few quirks seems ludicrous.
Secondly, the producers have little or no way to influence the physical appearance of the veg or fruit they are growing. They have to allow a certain percentage of their crop for wastage, despite it receiving the same investment and being of the same quality as the rest. This disadvantages producers who grow using environmentally sustainable methods and smaller producers, for whom every kilo counts. In Ireland the retail environment can be very difficult for local and small producers to succeed in. Additional unnecessary and, ultimately unavoidable, costs can be the difference between staying in business or not.
We saw in this episode of GROW COOK EAT the tomatoes that Grantstown Nurseries know will be rejected by retailers are thrown in the compost skip before they ever get in front of a potential customer.
The Impact on Consumers
For consumers, the screening of veg and fruit for aesthetic reasons has skewed our perceptions of produce. Rather than choosing for freshness, taste and nutrition we are being conditioned to choose visually uniform produce and value the actual quality of the veg less. Even worse, we now equate quality with uniform appearance, so we have less understanding of the reality of food growing. This is ultimately leading to less choice, higher costs and, harder to quantify but no less important, an unrealistic understanding of the diversity and variety that’s acceptable in nature.
What can we do?
Buy the wonky veg! Don’t seek so-called perfection. Don’t expect to pay less per kilo for veg that’s identical in all ways except aesthetics. And don’t judge a tomato by its lumpiness.