Ugly food sales on the rise

It's not a sight you see yet in modern day city grocery stores, but it will soon be as marketers see profit in what until recently....

It’s not a sight you see yet in modern day city grocery stores, but it will soon be as marketers see profit in what until recently was considered waste. That would be the sale of “imperfect” or “ugly” food. It involves fruit, vegetables and other produce that are misshapen, blemished, too small, too large or just odd looking. Those products in the past were unsaleable because the spoiled urban consumer demanded that produce look absolutely perfect before they would consider a purchase. That’s the result of decades of consumers being able to buy fresh produce in unlimited quantities at the cheapest prices in the world. In order to stay in business, growers and marketers catered to the whims of the overindulged consumer by throwing away fruits and vegetables that were less than perfect. It’s estimated such wastage can be as high as 20 per cent of harvested fruits and vegetables.

Growers knew that there is nothing wrong with imperfect produce – it just doesn’t look pretty. That marketing reality had side effects, the wastage made for increased costs to crop production and it caused growers to seek out genetic and chemical solutions to growing more perfect fruits and vegetables. Over the past decades, plant breeders have been able to create varieties that all mature at the same time, have consistent colours and are easier to mechanically harvest. There are chemicals available for certain fruits and vegetables that will slow maturity or increase maturity. There is a whole chemical arsenal to fend off blemishes caused by molds, fungus and assorted bugs. Interestingly, chemical use would probably be considerably reduced if the consumer accepted their produce to be less than perfect. That’s the normal approach with organic fruit and vegetables marketing where consumers expect their produce to be blemished and imperfect. In fact, organic produce buyers seek out blemished products because to many of them it proves what they are buying is actually organically-grown. Those folks associate perfect fruits and vegetables with conventional farming. That’s understandable considering the general fraud that exists with organic produce labelling.

About 20 years ago some insightful marketers in France realized that there was money to be made with all the wastage involved with fruit and vegetable growing. Sure much of off-grade produce can be diverted into juice production, further processing and animal feed, but those were more a salvage approach with very little profit. The idea they had was to market less than perfect fruits and vegetables as “ugly” food and that it was politically-correct to buy it to avoid wastage and save the world. To add an incentive ugly food is generally sold at a 30 per cent discount to perfect produce. That marketing approach seemed to have worked as some major grocery chains in North America are now experimenting with the ugly food concept and are doing so under various labels, names and logos. It’s a marketing scheme that will probably succeed particularly if there is a significant price discount. One notes that big box grocery chains move thousands of tons of discounted conventional produce on a regular basis. In comparison, those same outlets sell very little high-priced organic produce – the point is that the market is there for even more deeply discounted imperfect fruits and vegetables. It’s been proven time and again that city consumers, God bless them, tend to vote with their wallets if given a choice in their food purchases.

This new produce marketing scheme will be of benefit to those with limited or fixed incomes – and that’s a good thing. One might presume that a significant volume increase in sales of ugly produce could negatively affect the sale of perfect produce – not to fear grocery chains are forever inventive in manipulating margins and supply to balance out their sales programs. However, depending on how successful ugly food marketing becomes there may be an unintended casualty. Nowadays, the fate of much imperfect fruit and vegetables at the retail store level was destined for local food banks. Folks that use those outlets rarely turn up their noses at such food. If buying ugly food becomes more trendy and politically-correct, food banks may see a diminished supply from retail outlets.

Interestingly, food fashion may also play a role in reducing wastage. In the past, small potatoes and carrots were considered to be imperfect, and were culled out at the grower level. Now through clever packaging and merchandizing those former waste products are sold at a premium. Perhaps some other ugly produce will soon become tomorrow’s fashionable food fad.