European retailers embrace crooked fruit and ugly veggies

by Mathilde Richter

AFP-JIJI

Any takers for blemished apples, misshapen carrots and overly bent cucumbers?

Some European retailers are entering the market of ugly fruits and vegetables, positioning themselves as crusaders against food waste.

Edeka of Germany has started selling the flawed items in some of its stores across the country as part of a four-week pilot project.

Normally the crooked veggies would end up thrown away or as animal feed because consumers “buy with their eyes too, and have gotten used to certain norms” of shape and color, said Gernot Kasel, a spokesman for Germany’s top retailer by market share.

Branded “nobody is perfect,” the ill-proportioned apples, potatoes and carrot sell cheaper than their “normal” counterparts.

Swiss market-leader Coop entered similar new ground in August with a range called Unique, on offer in about a third of its stores.

After blemished apricots and freckled cauliflowers, these days three-legged carrots are vying for buyers’ favors, said Coop spokeswoman Nadja Ruch.

They are priced about 60 percent cheaper than “first-class” carrots, she said.

“There would be scope for selling many more of these products, as demand has certainly exceeded our hopes,” said Ruch. But there is simply no more supply of these “moods of nature,” as Coop likes to refer to them.

German retailer Rewe has launched its own Wunderling range in its Austrian stores. The name is a cross between the words “anomaly” and “miracle.”

British retail giant Sainsbury’s paved the way last year. Adverse weather conditions translated into a dramatic drop in the country’s fruit and vegetables production, and a high rate of misshapen and damaged goods.

Sainsbury’s nevertheless committed to buying all the output, including ugly specimens. They found their way onto the shelves or as ingredients in ready-made meals or pastries.

For retailer Rewe, entering that market “isn’t a decision based on economic considerations,” the company said. It sees the project, which will be extended to other markets if the Austrian experiment is a success, as “a concrete step against the food waste culture.”

According to recent figures by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, over a billion tons of food is thrown away each year, costing the world about $750 billion.

Environmental and anti-poverty groups have long highlighted the problem, and 2014 has been labeled the “European Year against Food Waste” by the European Union.

With their ugly fruit and veg action, Edeka, Coop and the others have clearly embraced a trend.

The products “are optimal in quality and taste,” said Rewe.

In many markets, quality, taste and origin are increasingly important in purchase decisions. That’s the case in Germany, for instance, where taste ranks as the top buying criterion for food, ahead of price, according to a study by Ipsos institute.

From a producers’ perspective, however, getting rid of unsightly products is a concern “of secondary importance,” said Jochen Winkhoff, who is in charge of vegetables at Germany’s farmers’ association Bauernverband.

Nonetheless, growers welcome the new market for their flawed pieces of fruit and vegetables, especially if the arrival of strange-looking potatoes and zucchinis on supermarkets shelves “raises real questions about nature” for the consumers.

But farmers still want to hold onto strict norms in their dealings with retailers.

“They make total sense,” said Winkhoff, “for instance when setting prices.” “Nowadays every deal is done on the phone or over the Internet, and the parties have to be sure they talk about the same thing,” he added.

A number of EU norms, notably the much-mocked cucumber-curve norm, were abandoned in 2008.

The overwhelming majority of professionals still apply norms drawn up by United Nations body UNECE.

These specify, for instance, that brown stains on a apricot shouldn’t exceed 15 percent of its surface. And a zucchini has to be at least 7 cm long, as well as “free of cavities and splits.”