A modern obsession with perfectly shaped food means entire crops of edible fruit and vegetables are being rejected by supermarkets because they don’t meet marketing standards. The UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers has reported that as much as 30% of all vegetable crops are not harvested because of how they look.
Paul Daggem, 54, who sells locally sourced produce at his stall in Ridley Road Market, thinks that supermarkets could learn from smaller retailers like himself. He believes big companies place too much value on the appearance of food, rather than whether it is edible.
Paul says: “I heard they threw a million eggs away because they weren’t all the same colour! A similar thing exists with mushrooms, if they aren’t perfectly white then they get chucked. It’s such a waste!”
Despite being perfectly fit for human consumption, it’s normal practice for farmers to assume that 20 to 40 per cent of their fruit and vegetables won’t reach supermarket shelves.
But in a recent report from The Guardian it was revealed that over 80 per cent of British shoppers are happy to buy fruit and vegetables that are cosmetically imperfect.
Market holder Greg Speil commented on the statistic saying: “Forty per cent of my consumers don’t care, I take the waste back and put it out the following day.”
Mary Pillory, 43, shops at Ridley Road for her groceries after abandoning supermarkets two years ago. Pillory says of her decision: “The quality isn’t the same and you can buy a kilo rather than a pre-packaged item.
“Generally I think people prefer to look for something that just looks nice and isn’t properly tasty or nutritious,” she added.
Critics say that commercial buyers should bear responsibility and start stocking food that isn’t completely perfect. Former environment secretary John Gummer recently urged the government to consider banning food waste from landfills.
Greg Speil says: “All this food wastage, I don’t know if it goes to hostels or people on the streets or anything like that. All those sell by dates and things should be abolished – waste should go straight to those who need it.
“My missus will buy a packet of sausages and if they’re a day over their sell by date then she’ll chuck them – it’s not like they’ve gone mouldy or exploded! As long as they’re air-pack sealed then you can have them for ages.”
Leading by example.
So what happens to all this wasted food? Pret A Manger gives much of its leftover food to homeless shelters, donating 12,000 meals a day, avoiding up to 350 tonnes of landfill. Several UK supermarkets have launched campaigns against sending food products to landfill, with Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose working with the charity FareShare to distribute edible leftovers. But UK shops still throw away 1.6 million tonnes of food a year. Some shops argue that if they donate food past its expiry date, they will be liable for food poisoning. Yet this threat could be avoided if the UK had a similar law to America’s Bill Emerson Act.
The Bill Emerson Food Donation Act protects the donor and recipient against liability and provides protection for food that meets all quality and labelling standards even though it may not be “readily marketable due to appearance, age, freshness, grade, size, surplus or other conditions.”
Ridley Road Market shopper and food writer Shooey uses £5 each week to buy local ingredients for recipes, which she then posts on the website Loving Dalston. Shooey started writing the column after a local MP stated poor people in Hackney don’t have access to good food. “A lot of people would say, oh no, people don’t have actually have time to cook food but in the end its cheaper to cook food from scratch,” Shooey says.
“I paid a pound for a cabbage that’s lasted a month and managed to grab a sack of onions for £1.50 that lasted three weeks. It’s lovely to walk down the market and see really odd shaped cucumbers – really curly ones, which taste exactly the same as straight ones regardless of how you slice them. I think supermarkets only buy them straight for the ease of packaging.”
For Shooey and others shopping at Ridley Road Market, it’s all about the experience and getting away from identikit supermarkets. “It’s so atmospheric. You’re walking through the world. It’s the world in one street,” Shooey says.