Why Cut-Price 'Ugly' Supermarket Food Won't Reduce Waste

The battle to reduce food waste and increase access to nutritious food just got a whole lot cheaper and uglier in Australia.

Picture: Katharine Shilcott/flickr.com

In early December, Woolworths launched its "odd bunch" campaign, becoming the latest retailer to offer consumers "ugly" food at discount prices.

Mainstream food outlets tell us that fruit and vegetables are ugly when they are blemished, misshapen (perhaps with an extra appendage or two), or otherwise fail to meet their usual standards.

Ugly food is marketed as a way to reduce food waste. But selling it cheap won't help, because it doesn't address the underlying issue: that we're buying too much food.

Wasting away

Australian households throw out up to $8 billion worth of food each year. The environmental impacts range from wasted water and fertiliser, to significant methane emissions from rotting food in rubbish tips.

In affluent nations like Australia, most wasted food has already been bought and brought home (so-called "post-consumer food waste"). Developed countries have largely eradicated the problems that lead to food wastage in poorer countries, such as pest infestation and inadequate storage or transportion. Yet rates of food waste seem to be similar everywhere, equating to about a third of the food produced.

Research shows that 72% of Australians feel guilty when they waste food, yet still do it. Over the past decade numerous initiatives have appeared, courtesy of charities such as SecondBite, Ozharvest, and The Yellow Van, which redistribute food to those in need, as well as consumer awareness campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste and FoodWise.

Supermarket swoop

By offering discounted imperfect food, retailers are now positioning themselves as part of this broader effort to cut food waste.

Woolworths' "Odd Bunch" campaign and Harris Farm Market's "Imperfect Picks" are part of a worldwide trend started by French supermarket Intermarché's "Inglorious" initiative, launched earlier this year. Tied to the European Union's year against food waste, Intermarché's campaign aimed to "rehabilitate and glorify" ugly food. It led to a 24% increase in store traffic and attracted global attention.

Advertisements show Intermarché's inglorious fruit and vegetables in all their wayward glory, accompanied by descriptions such as "grotesque apple", "ridiculous potato", "hideous orange", "disfigured eggplant" and "failed lemon".

Alongside the tongue-in-cheek descriptions are reminders that under these deformed exteriors lies fresh, nutritious, tasty food, such as "a grotesque apple keeps the doctor away as well".

The undesirable natural packaging of inglorious foods is presented as beneficial to consumers because they are 30% cheaper than their more aesthetically pleasing counterparts. But this message also reinforces the notion that "ugly" (even if only skin-deep) equals "cheap" when it comes to food.

Sell it cheap, waste it anyway

In affluent countries like France and Australia, access to cheaper food doesn't mean less household food waste. What's more, charging lower prices for ugly fruit and vegetables also neglects the fact that the same labour is required to produce and harvest crops, regardless of their appearance. Thus ugly food helps to perpetuate a food system that undervalues food, in which consumers routinely buy too much and throw away the leftovers.

My research has investigated the food waste behaviours of consumers of mainstream supermarkets and alternative food networks such as community gardens and farmers' markets. The results suggest that people who grow some of their own food or talk directly to producers go to great lengths to prevent food waste. These consumers speak of the time, effort and care that underpins food production, and are motivated to avoid waste out of respect for the food itself as well as its producer.

This attitude values food not in terms of its appearance or cost, but as a source of nutrition and pleasure painstakingly produced by a combination of factors, both human and non-human (such as water, weather and soil nutrients).

Cheaper food — ugly or not — is not really the way to encourage people to rethink and reduce our wasteful behaviours. Ugly food should be sold and eaten, not wasted. It should be priced fairly. But we must also learn to respect and value our food beyond its appearance and price. Only by promoting ethical and sustainable practices will we really get a grip on the problem of food waste.The Conversation

Bethaney Turner is Assistant Professor in International Studies at University of Canberra.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    Most suburban houses could support a veggie patch - if only it was easy to redirect grey water from showers, sinks, & washing machines.
    Without that, we are a slave to the water bill. In Adelaide, anyway...

      Put a bucket in the bottom of your shower. It's not perfect or a true Grey-Water capture system, but I get enough from my nightly shower to keep my tomatoes happy, and they're one of the thirstiest home veggies.

      But yes you nail it, so many homes could support substantial vegetable gardens...instead we get sprawling "lawns", completely useless and ecologically wasteful.

        not to mention lawns are a PITA to mow all the time.

    Most of our fresh fruit and vegetables in Tasmania would be deemed imperfect (contrary to popular belief). This is really good news for us I think, this should mean we can pick up apples, potatoes, bananas and oranges etc and get a discount on most of it.

    I am assuming everyone is aware that both Woolworth's and Coles send their second rate stuff to regional Australia, there is documented evidence of this. What's worse in Tasmania is that we export to the Australian mainland and overseas all the good stuff and we are left with the crap.

    Add this to the second grade crap from the supermarkets and Bob's your uncle. We do not have the luxury of having a market like Melbourne or Sydney. Yes we have local markets but they are a joke.

    So this is great news, I'm definitely going to be asking for the discount when this comes into operation. I would not mind betting though that there is a little clause that says "not applicable in Tasmania".

      You can only compete with your exports against cheaper local produce by sending your very best goods, since there is a cost in the transport which the local produce doesn't have. You also have very strict conditions of sale with the whole export chain, usually only your very best reaches that goal. Substandard surplus is then left for the local consumer - it sucks but that's the way of the world.

    "charging lower prices for ugly fruit and vegetables also neglects the fact that the same labour is required to produce and harvest crops, regardless of their appearance. "

    If the food was not going to be sold at all initially due to its appearance then the original price for it would have been zero. That would've "devalued" the produce quite a lot more don't you think? If it now costs just a bit less than the good looking fruit then that's a huge increase over what it was valued at before. It seems to be a win-win all round.

    And as I understand it selling deformed food to people who already buy fresh food is not the objective, it's selling to poorer people who would not normally find a place in their budget for fresh food at all. People on lower incomes regularly buy cheaper, time saving, more energy intensive processed foods, so marketing a more affordable alternative to them is a very good thing.

    The "waste" that would be combated here isn't individual waste, it's supermarket and farm waste, and it seems to address that quite well.

    "But we must also learn to respect and value our food beyond its appearance and price. Only by promoting ethical and sustainable practices will we really get a grip on the problem of food waste."
    -This doesn't have too much meaning in terms of the subject of the article. It seems to be more about an idealised version of highly structured, sustainable farming. But we don't live in a very agrarian focussed world (apart from some organic farming fantasists who wish we did), and that subject is far bigger and more complex than the subject discussed in this article.

    The issue with food waste is not just on a household basis, but also at supermarkets. Most end up throwing out a lot of stuff, such that it becomes quite feasible to search dumpsters for food with largely only cosmetic defects.

    The moves from Woolworths to start the "Odd Bunch" campaign is a good start, but I await further action from major supermarket chains to reduce their food waste.

    Wonder if all this sale of ugly fruit will lead to more expensive cider as their cheap source of fruit gets more attention and their premium goes up?

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