Food for thought - how good quality vegetables are being rejected over wonky look

The battle against food waste is being undermined by supermarket chains' strict visual criteria for vegetables and fruit

Aoibheann O’Brien, CEO of Food Cloud, pictured at the company’s base in Broomhill Business Park, Dublin 24. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Aoibheann O’Brien, CEO of Food Cloud, pictured at the company’s base in Broomhill Business Park, Dublin 24. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Claire Mc Cormack

Retailers are leaving farmers out of pocket by rejecting good quality vegetables that have a wonky appearance, a food science expert has warned.

As the EU vows to ramp up efforts to curb food waste in agriculture, Professor Nick Holden, School of Biosystems and Food Engineering at UCD, says relaxing retailer quality criterion for the domestic market is a logical first step.

The Irish Farmer's Association are also calling on retailers to show "more understanding" towards growers particularly during periods of turbulent weather which may damage the quality of their crops.

Meanwhile, a Bia Food Initiative, known as FoodCloud Hubs, is now offering farmers a solution for "ugly" surplus food that doesn't make the supermarket grade.

Speaking to the Farming Independent, Professor Holden said the criteria for unprocessed foods are "too strict".

"We have been miseducated into believing that minor, unimportant flaws should cause us to reject a product. That is far too strict," he said.

"It's unsustainable. I don't think it's possible to have a system where you get a high enough proportion of the product to a quality standard for a reasonable amount of investment of inputs," he said.

Although Professor Holden couldn't definitively say whether this proportion of waste is having a significant impact on the country's food waste levels as a whole, he says farmers on the ground are taking a financial hit.

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Recent figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that an estimated 509,900 tonnes of food waste (251,000t household plus 258,900t food services) is generated in Ireland every year.

"At the end of the day the farmer is the one who usually picks up the tab on that discount. The farmer isn't paid the same amount per kilo for the wonky veg as the other veg even though they had to put in exactly the same amount to produce it," he said.

"The quality criteria should be on the nutrition, not the aesthetics," he said.

Professor Holden, who recently co-authored a paper on food waste in Ireland, says the consumer's understanding of waste is misconstrued.

"We use the word waste to describe all sorts of different things in the food chain, some of which are genuinely waste but most of which are not, they are only waste in terms of the very open and subjective definition that the European Union uses," he said.

The waste directive definition is that if the owner or stakeholder no longer wants something it can be regarded as waste.

"Just because I don't want it doesn't mean that it's waste, it could be very useful," he said.

Vytenis Andriukaitis, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety recently made an emotive plea to EU farmers to join the battle against food waste.

Farmers were responsible for around nine million tonnes (10pc) of all food wasted in the EU in 2015.

In order to truly tackle the issue, Professor Holden says all stakeholders in the value chain, from farm field to supermarket, need to educate the consumer to recalibrate their expectations.

"I don't think the retailer should be forcing the consumer to only see the perfect product and they shouldn't be requiring the farmer to produce only a perfect product and as consumers we should be educated to understand what should be acceptable," he said.

Last month, IFA President Joe Healy expressed concern at the discounting of potatoes by a number of retailers in the run up to Christmas.

"This illustrates the scant disregard which some retailers have for the primary producer of Quality Assured Irish grown product. Their sole aim is to drive footfall with no appreciation of the impact which these retail practices have further down the supply chain," he said.

Pat Farrell, IFA Horticulture Chairman, said if retailers kept pushing standards so high they would need to pay more to cover the cost of production.

"We'd be asking the supermarkets to relax a bit on their criteria in times of bad weather when growers are faced with natural events outside their control that causes their product to be less than perfect, we would ask them to be more tolerant," he said.


Meanwhile, FoodCloud Hubs are spearheading a farm-to-fork solution for wasted food. Over the last two months, the successful operator of three food redistribution hubs in Cork, Galway and Dublin have been working with two primary producers on farms in Meath and Dublin to help them redistribute wasted food to charities.

Aoibheann O'Brien, CEO of FoodCloud Hubs said they now have the infrastructure to deal with large quantities of surplus waste from growers. "We can deal with potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and other fruits and veg quite quickly and make sure it gets to the people that need it most as fast, efficiently and safely as possible," she said.

The head of the non-profit food-sharing service, which works with producers, manufacturers, and wholesalers and distributes to 80 charities nationwide, believes their latest venture with Meade Potato Company and Kilbush Nurseries is another step in the right direction.

"We encourage any growers struggling with surplus to give us a call, tell us what you have and we'll work through a process to ensure it's used for human consumption not animal waste or ending up in landfills," she said.

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