I imagine nearly every aspiring artist at one point has put brush to canvas to paint a bowl of fruit. I have seen many such artistic renderings of fresh produce at elegant repose.
If you Google images of “still life fruit” you will see hundreds of paintings and photographs of pristine fruit — the idealized banana, the perfect peach, the gorgeous grape and so on.
The reality is that you will be hard-pressed to find an artist will to invest his talent in drawing a bowl of ugly fruit and veggies.
As a rule, we love beautiful produce and we shun speckled, spotted and misshapen fruits and vegetables.
For that reason, I find it fascinating that there is a new movement afoot to market “ugly” fruits and vegetables. My first thought is that the industry has enough challenges in selling fine-looking fruits and vegetables, why add to the challenge by intentionally marketing less than stellar examples?
The impulse to market ugly fruits and vegetables comes from the desire to cut out waste, to maximize the amount of good food available to the public. If cosmetic standards are relaxed, then there is more food available to be consumed and less food that will be tossed.
The trend has emerged both in Europe and the U.S., though it is perhaps more established in Europe.
The European Union relaxed strict rules governing the sale of imperfect fruit in 2009, but it seems most observers believe that consumer awareness of food waste is driving the marketing push of blemished produce.
A recent NPR story was headlined “In Europe, ugly sells in the produce aisle” explores some of the reason that ugly produce is getting more attention.
The story notes that the United Nations Environment Program estimates that as much as 20% to 40% of fresh produce is wasted. The European Union declared 2014 as the “Year against food waste.” Perhaps in response to that declaration, the Fresh retailer Intermarche launched a marketing campaign for “inglorious fruits and vegetables,” touting to consumers the appeal of ugly produce. The NPR report said Intermarche television commercials outlandishly promoted “the grotesque apple,” “the failed lemon,” “the disfigured eggplant,” “the ugly carrot” and the “unfortunate clementine.”
Did it work? The 30% discount applied to ugly produce helped, and the supermarket reported that overall store traffic increased 24% for the temporary experiment in March, which was reprised again in October. Some supermarket competitors also launched similar campaigns, according to NPR.
Recent coverage of the issue from the U.K indicates that about 48% of consumers surveyed by Mintel said they would buy oddly shaped fruits and vegetables if they were of good quality. Further, the report at Easier.com reports that 42% of consumers in the U.K. say they would buy “ugly” produce if it boasted a price advantage over more beautiful produce.
And more than half of U.K. adults say that retailers should do more to eliminate food waste, and 28% of consumers are concerned about the amount of fruits and vegetables they waste.
In Canada, The Packer reported that Redcliff, Alberta-based Red Hat Co-operative Ltd. began bagging “utility” cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and eggplant — product that normally doesn’t make it to retail — under the Misfits label this year,.
Marketing efforts included a fake movie poster featuring misshapen cartoon vegetables and the title, “The Misfits: Rise of the Rejects.” Consumer and media response has been very strong, company officials say, and expansion of the marketing program into the U.S. is possible in 2015.
For retailers, is the strategy of selling ugly produce sustainable? Will a retailer ever call a supplier and complain, “Sorry I had to reject that load you sent because the produce was just too perfect.”
It will take a lot of consumer and retail re-education to make the strategy of selling ugly produce sustainable. Will selling ugly produce increase overall produce consumption? Will it make growers and retailers more money? Will it result in less food waste? Will the blemishes on less than perfect produce result in a shorter shelf life? What demographic markets and neighborhoods will be targeted with “ugly produce”; will it be an equal opportunity marketing campaign, or targeted to lower income neighborhoods? Are there better ways to reduce food waste?
I don’t know if we know enough now to answer with great authority any of those questions.
Ugly produce may require a clever marketing campaign and heavy media exposure to click with consumers, but is the effort worth it? Everyone likes the idea of less food waste, but will shoppers really choose a blemished apple over a perfect one?
Unless the price discount is very significant, I don’t think so.
Find me a painting of blemished fruits and vegetables and I’ll show you the opportunity for growers and retailers to invest in marketing ugly produce.