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25 Aug 13 13:06

My local supermarket, the Swiss supermarket chain Coop, has just launched a new brand of food. Food sold under the label Unique does not conform to the very strict beauty standards that supermarkets apply when buying fruit and vegetables from growers. Since this week, Coop customers can buy three-legged carrots, oversized cauliflowers and other freaky-looking food which was until now only accessible to consumers buying straight from the growers (a fantastic option if you live near some).

Until this move, supermarkets like Coop did not sell fresh produce that deviated from the so-called norm. In fact, leading supermarket chains (I happen to know the UK's Tesco was a case in point but I suspect many chains are the same) have blanket agreements with growers that ensure they only buy produce that conforms to specific characteristics. The way it works is that they run the fruit and veg through a so-called beauty standard scanner. Each type of produce is only allowed to deviate up to something like 15% from the species' supposed ideal look. For instance, pink lady apples will need to be 60% pink, 10% yellow and be shaped in a certain way. All pink lady apples that fall outside of that margin are discarded by Tesco (not even returned to the grower as that would be too expensive, as Felicity Lawrence informs us in her brilliant 'Not on the Label' book on everything everybody should know about the food industry). I would pay good money to find out how much perfectly edible, super tasty fresh produce we throw away every day just because, as some might say, it looks funny. Having spent a bit of my childhood in the 1980s in Spain, where vegetables and fruit were left to ripen and were sold in whatever shape mother nature gave them, I have to say that to me, it is the armies of identical (and may I add flavorless) fresh produce in supermarkets today that freak me out.

Considering how many mouths we already have to feed, and given that we throw away half of the food we produce (more on that here, I think this move by Coop is just brilliant and I hope many supermarkets will follow suit!

Read a recent NZZ news article (in German) announcing the move:

Category: Food security: Food industry, Food waste

Location: Basel, Switzerland


Gavin Montgomery - 26 Aug 2013, 7:32 a.m.

Grading is only one of may factors that motivate farmers and distributors to discard crops. The Natural Resources Defense Council have an excellent report detailing some of the arguments used to justify ditching crops.

These include simple economics, where the cost of harvesting exceeds the potential profit from doing so, arbitrary shelf life rules, daily demand at the point of packaging, etc.

Interestingly, they taken a broader view of the cost of this "shrinkage", looking at the resources wasted in production, from land mass to fertilizers, pesticides, man hours and water. For example, they calculate that 2.5 billion gallons of water were used to irrigate broccoli that never entered the market in Monterey county. It's not just wasted food, there's a huge social and environmental cost in wasteful production.

Gavin Montgomery - 21 Oct 2013, 6:51 a.m.

Interestingly, Tesco has now committed to combatting global food waste. You can read about their initiative here:

Or you can see it in the context of their CR commitment in a longer .pdf report here:

A cynical part of me is reminded me of the CR campaigns of companies like Raytheon, which makes missiles and deadly weapons but claims to really, really care for people -

Still, I guess sometimes we have to give the Devil it's due and celebrate any effort by corporations to change behavior. As consumers, we need to reward good behavior and shun bad behavior to create economic incentives that suits our society as there is no chance of our elected officials doing that job for us.

Alicia Montoya - 25 Jul 2014, 7:01 a.m.

Intermarche has just joined the movement, adding "les fruits / legumes moches" (the inglorious fruits & vegetables) to their product line:

Fantastic! As their campaign tagline says, it's indeed a "glorious way to fight food waste". I hope the rest of French supermarkets follow suit.

Gavin Montgomery - 25 Jul 2014, 7:11 a.m.

And in the UK, the Environmental Audit Committee is proposing a ban on sending waste food to landfills alongside other measures to counter the 'disposal society'.

The other proposals are also amazing, like lowering VAT on recycled goods and obliging companies to offer longer warranties. It highlights the fact that government can play a constructive role if it ever decides to put the interests of society ahead of big business. Not holding my breath.

Alicia Montoya - 27 Jul 2014, 7:21 p.m.

Brilliant! Lots of great ideas in there.

I can't help but feel we seem to have come full circle. Products (machinery, household goods, clothes, cars..) used to be built to last. I still remember my GE fridge from California. It lasted us 30 years! Today, products have a much shorter shelf-life, and often cannot be repaired, simply replaced, which is tremendously wasteful. So I especially welcome the MPs' call to set longer minimum warranty periods for consumer goods, to encourage companies to make things that last. Clearly, "throwaway economics" (as today's disposable society is sometimes referred to) simply isn't sustainable in the 21st century. Agree with you, Gavin, that this is not news but am somewhat hopeful that, as pressure rises, governments around the world will need to start implementing measures.

More good news this week: Germany's first zero-waste supermarket is about to open its doors: "Original Unverpackt will sell food largely sourced from local suppliers as a means of reducing transportation costs and pollution. The products are then sold in bulk using gravity bins (upside-down containers with a lever where the user can decide exactly how much they need). Customers will bring their own containers to take the produce away, borrow reusable containers from the store or use bags made from recycled paper."

Alba Chantico - 25 Jul 2014, 11:24 a.m.

This is a very interesting tema that hits ethical matters, I am glad things around the food waste in the world begin to change

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