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What’s in a bad apple?

Large food retailers catch on to the idea that good fruit doesn’t need to be beautiful

By Chantal Braganza

Would you buy a pimply zucchini or a carrot with a forked tongue? Would a 30 percent discount on bumpy, misshapen produce change your mind?

That’s what Loblaw is banking on with its Naturally Imperfect range of produce, which was launched in Ontario and Quebec stores last March. Starting with apples and potatoes, the national grocer is offering produce that otherwise wouldn’t have made it to shelves at a discounted rate. The claim: it’s both a bid on the part of a retailer to cut down on the seven billion kilograms of food that gets wasted in Canada each year and an effort to change the way we think about what good food looks like.

Canada isn’t alone in this idea. Last year, French grocer Intermarche launched an experimental sales campaign that championed the virtues of ugly produce: a grotesque apple or disfigured eggplant, for example, could match up to its shiny, symmetrical counterparts in taste what it didn’t in looks. To prove it, they stocked a couple of stores with aisles of gnarly carrots and potatoes, as well as soups and shakes made with the same. In March 2014, the ad agency that launched the campaign reported a 24 percent increase in the pilot store’s traffic; that October, Intermarche renewed the experiment in all 1,800 of its franchises for a week. Similar riffs on the same theme exist elsewhere: there’s the Fruta Feia [Ugly Fruit] co-operative in Portugal, and U.K. shops such as Mintel’s and Asda have explored ways of bringing misshapen fruits and vegetables into the fold.

What’s striking about these European examples is that they’re not just kind-hearted attempts at changing consumer’s minds about what good food looks like; they’re part of an ongoing set of reactions to economic hardship in the E.U., agricultural policy, and the relationship of both to supermarket interests. A 2014 profile of Lisbon-based Fruta Feia, for instance, points out that since 1992 Europe’s food-sale regulations have taken on near impossible-to-meet quality standards in an attempt to synthesize input from nearly 30 countries. As a result, the E.U. throws away nearly 89 million tonnes of food a year as farmers strive to produce redder apples and stick-straight cucumbers, not only to live up to E.U. standards but the standards that supermarkets place on the kinds of produce they will or won't purchase.

The European Union has, in recent years, started to change its approach to food standards in light of this: it scaled back its food marketing rules slightly in 2008 and declared 2014 to be the year against food waste.

While Loblaw’s Naturally Imperfect is still in pilot mode, it will be interesting to see if it resonates with shoppers and what, if any, changes in grocery retail might result from its success. One possible downside to keep in mind was brought up by a director of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture last March. In an article for the Sarnia Observer, Mark Wales said: “[P]roduce buyers don't have the best reputation. They could reject your load and say, 'Well it has a few that are too small or a few blemished. We don't want it as No. 1, but we will buy it from you as No. 2.' We've always had that issue with processing. This creates that opportunity for fresh.”

Author's photo
Chantal Braganza is a writer and editor in Toronto.
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