Fresh produce makes up a staggering portion of food waste, both around the world and in the U.S. Last year, approximately 6.7 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables went unharvested or unsold by growers, according to a recent study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and World Economics Forum.
Some of this agricultural waste is the result of poor weather conditions and shortages of crop gatherers, but much is caused by a factor that exists at the opposite end of the supply chain: consumer perception and taste.
The power of the 'beauty mystique'
"We eat with our eyes,” Beth Vallen, associate professor of marketing and business law at Villanova University, told Food Dive. “When you’re looking at an ugly fruit, it just doesn’t have that aesthetic appeal.”
Vallen and fellow researchers explored the evolutionary drivers behind this visual bias in the scientific study “The Squander Sequence: Understanding Food Waste at Each Stage of the Consumer Decision-Making Process.” The "squander sequence" refers to the points in the food supply chain where consumers cause waste, beginning with the grocery store point of sale.
Consumer desire for aesthetically pleasing produce and distrust of fruit and vegetables that are bruised, oddly-shaped or marked by insects shape a phenomenon that Vallen and her fellow researchers refer to as the “beauty mystique.” This leads consumers to reject damaged or blemished produce — likely because of subconscious health concerns.
“Is the ugly apple as healthy as the non-ugly apple? Is it safe? Evolutionarily speaking, we’re trained to look for those perfect items,” Vallen said.
Rejection of suspicious-looking fruits and vegetables first occurs in the produce aisle, but causes major ripple effects upstream. Produce aesthetic — particularly in terms of color, size, shape and skin texture — is heavily controlled by food suppliers and grocery chains in order to ensure consumer interest and sales, according to the study.
The study says that “appearance grading” also causes most fresh produce waste before items even get to the grocery.
“If a field of zucchini or pumpkins comes in and they’re completely malformed, someone might make the call… (that) it’s more economical to leave (them) in the field,” Vallen said. “These visual cues impact waste across the distribution channels from farmer to consumer.”
A fatal feedback loop
What causes more food waste, consumers at the end of the "squander sequence," or industry anticipation of consumer preference along the supply chain?
It’s difficult to quantify, but is present everywhere, Vallen said.
“If you look at the numbers, there is a lot of waste that’s caused at the hand of the consumer. … They’re quoting somewhere between $700 and $1,500 a year is what the average consumer disposes of usable food, and the retailer numbers are obviously larger because there’s more food (that they deal with),” Vallen said.
Regardless of the amount of food wasted, it is exacerbated by the feedback loop between consumers and producers. As producers and retailers scramble to accommodate unrealistic consumer expectations for produce appearance, it reinforces those expectations as “normal.” In turn, this shrinks the amount of produce deemed pretty enough to purchase.
A key factor of the beauty mystique and consumer expectations is the concept of abundance.
“If you think of this from the retailer perspective, stores that flourish are the ones with full displays of beautiful food,” Vallen said. “Consumers want to see big displays of beautiful things. …To be successful, (retailers) have to anticipate what consumers want.”
Grocery stores have become more experiential than ever, the study says, with retailers striving to maximize symbols of abundance and convenience to draw shoppers and beat competitors. This is evident through recent grocery trends, like hot and cold buffets, meal stations and in-store dieticians.
According to the study, “marketer actions both reinforce and are a response to consumer product preferences and desires for variety and abundance, creating a cyclical pattern that can promote waste in the system.”
In order to change this phenomenon and curb food waste, Vallen suggests the system needs to be overhauled from the bottom up.
The good, the bad and the ugly: waste reduction tactics
The study notes that producers and manufacturers are not necessarily neglecting the food waste problem. Instead, the food industry, and grocery stores in particular, may be putting their energies into less successful strategies like food donation.
“Down the line there has been fairly large-scale efforts to get food retailers to donate unused food,” Vallen said. “I think we’ve seen more of that in the past five years or so.”
Even if food is donated, Vallen said, people who get produce from food banks may fall victim to the same beauty mystique that in-store consumers do, rejecting fruit and vegetables that are still nutritious and safe to eat, but show wear and tear.
The retailer’s role in consumer education
Food donation is not enough to change the state of the industry, Vallen said.
“If we break this link between ‘beautiful is good,’ then we change the way that consumers shop, which then changes the way that retailers present their merchandise, which changes potentially the way that farmers sell their food,” Vallen said.
“That makes it sound very easy; it’s not. But we can make concerted changes and really reflect on why consumers are doing these things and start to address them perhaps via a retailing effort too, where retailers try to teach consumers (about food waste reduction).”
Some of this education can be achieved through targeted marketing campaigns, such as French grocery chain Intermarche’s “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” TV and print initiative, which celebrates malformed produce.
According to the study, the campaign contributed to the sale of 1.2 million tons of unattractive produce in its first two days.
American retailers are also getting on board with this strategy. Whole Foods partnered with Imperfect Produce to sell “ugly foods” at discounted prices at select locations earlier this year. The store dedicated displays to unusually shaped fruits and vegetables.
Whole Foods also purchases "ugly" produce to use in prepared foods at in-store juice and smoothie bars.
Wal-Mart, the largest grocery retailer in the U.S., began selling varieties of ugly apples in 300 of its Florida stores soon after Whole Foods kicked off its program. The "I'm Perfect" weather-beaten apples from Washington state are sold at a discounted price, encouraging consumers to try them despite their less-than-perfect exteriors.
The retail giant has also marketed a line of unconventional potatoes dubbed "Spuglies" for lower prices in more than 400 Texas stores.
Neither Whole Foods nor Wal-Mart have moved to expand these initiatives chain-wide, though 62% of American consumers would be "somewhat comfortable" eating ugly produce, according to a survey by The Harris Poll. The initiatives were launched in response to activist petitions for the sale of small, unattractive produce items to reduce food waste, showing a shift in consumer expectations of food appearance.
Vallen believes that if more retailers sell more "ugly" produce, the entire food industry could see long-term waste reduction.
“As we start to see more of that ugly produce in stores, that could start to change perceptions," Vallen said. “That could potentially become normalized through retail displays.”