Friday, 13 November 2015

Wonky vegetables and the War on Waste

If you live in the UK you can hardly fail to be aware of the campaign currently being waged by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and others to persuade everyone to waste less - especially food. HFW's programmes on TV have highlighted two main problem areas:

1. The supermarkets insist that consumers will only buy "good-looking" produce and therefore apply ridiculous cosmetic standards to fruit and vegetables, rejecting from their suppliers anything other than perfect specimens (Unless it suits them I notice. When certain products are in short supply they cynically lower the standards). Anything curved, too long, too short, too fat, too thin, or blemished in any way (i.e. "wonky") is NOT ACCEPTABLE. Allegedly.

"Wonky" Parsnip

2. People - ordinary people - throw away lots of perfectly edible food, mainly because they have lost the ability to judge when something is good or bad, and just chuck it away when it passes its artificial Use-By date. This system of Use-By dates is another invention of the supermarkets, I expect.

Quite apart from these two issues there is the wider issue of how the supermarkets treat their suppliers, which is quite frankly scandalously immoral. But then so is the fact that the UK discards 7 tonnes of perfectly serviceable clothing every 10 minutes. There is a certain type of person that thinks that wearing a garment only once is acceptable behaviour.

One of the things that demonstrated to me most clearly how determined are the supermarkets to resist seeing sense is the laughable "Comparitive trial" carried out by Morrisons, to determine whether consumers would buy the so-called Wonky Veg. They put Class 1 (perfect, firm and very fresh) courgettes next to Class 2 ("wonky" and evidently old and flaccid), in one of their shops. The Class 1 vegetables were loose so that the customer could select for themselves which ones to buy and how many. The Class 2 courgettes were in nets of 3, so that the customer could not choose. And the most ridiculous thing of all is that both classes were offered at the same price! Surprise, surprise, the consumers bought the Class 1 courgettes and rejected the Class 2 ones, thereby "demonstrating quite convincingly" that Wonky Veg are a waste of time, and to be avoided by the supermarkets at all costs. Who do they think they are kidding?

"Wonky" Carrots

So what are we to do about all this? HFW's campaign is definitely a good thing, but will it go far enough? I notice that at the time of writing his campaign has attracted about 250,000 pledges" (pledges to avoid waste), but this is a very small number, considering that the population of the UK is about 64 million. The big supermarkets may not feel that there is enough consumer pressure to alter their ways. Nor indeed will the individual consumer feel that wearing the garment only once is wrong when it only costs a few pounds, despite the fact it has been made in a sweatshop in the Far East and shipped halfway round the world to be sold for a mere pittance.

You know what I think? I think this is an education issue. Many people just don't understand the effect their behaviour is having on our environment, our economy, and our personal wellbeing. Maybe we should introduce Environmental Science and Ethics, especially Business Ethics, as compulsory subjects on our school curriculums?

In the meantime, please do whatever you can to persuade (embarrass?) your local supermarket to stock the less-than-perfect fruit and veg, and wherever possible buy locally and support your local small businesses, even if you do have to pay a little more for your goods. I for one will continue to grow as much of our own veg as possible, and there won't be many rejects in our kitchen!


  1. Another problem is that consumers don't have the choice they once did, supermarkets have the monopoly as many small businesses are being forced out. I'm lucky that I have a wonderful greengrocers just up the road which sells fabulous fruit and veg and I'd rather give them my business rather than the supermarkets. I love the personal service I get there too, none of this false "Are you having a good day" rubbish which supermarket staff are told to say. I think most of the problems we're encountering these days stem from education issues. Schools these days are run as businesses and as such it's all down to results and league tables so educating kids in such things as ethics doesn't come in to that. It's about time things changed.

    1. Jo, you are so right. What we ought to be teaching kids these days is "common decency" - how to act fairly and responsibly in our dealings with fellow human beings. The old saying "Do as you would be done by" is really what it all comes down to!

  2. I agree Mark that it should start with education but I just cant see that happening any more than I can see the governments stepping in to control the supermarkets. Unfortunately people are required to be good consumers and are taught that from an early age. How many parents use the TV as the unpaid baby sitter, plonking their kids in front of the box to be brain washed while they, the parents get on with something more important.

  3. Here, here! I agree, education is key - people have been conditioned to expect a certain shape/size/colour of veg or fruit. If only more people grew their own veg, even a few pots on the balcony or terrace, they would definitely appreciate all those wonky veg. And those best before dates - some of them are ludicrous. I mean, does salt really expire?

    Even at the farm, when they are picking veg to include in the CSA shares or for the market, I'll often look at what they set aside and say - I would definitely eat that. Thankfully, they use all the "seconds" at the farm and/or give them to the food bank.

  4. We buy any fruit and veg that we need from our local greengrocer but even them they are limited by what the wholesalers buy which although maybe not as fussy as the supermarkets must have many items rejected we don't see tie legged carrots. It was also mind boggling to see what the supermarkets throw away due to over stocking.

    Another point was to take even unusable clothes to be recycled as even if items cannot be worn the materials can be used.

  5. It's the same situation here in the U.S., so much is wasted. For five years I volunteered with an organization that collected discarded produce from several local supermarkets. I would estimate that 75-80% of the produce was still edible. We would clean it up, and cook and serve some of it in the soup kitchen and give away the rest. I believe people are so out of touch with what food should look like that they don't know what is edible and what should be thrown out. Education is key, and over here I don't see enough of it going on.

  6. Well said Mark. Sadly this is another sad fact of our "Throw away" society. I love my wonky veg. As for the use by and best before dates I always ignore these and use my eyes, nose and tongue to see if they are still edible, just like my grandparents did and I haven't poisoned myself yet.

  7. In Australia there is a vegetable growing company that developed and marketed an "Ugly vegetable" brand. All their seconds were marketed under this brand and they had great success selling the "unsellable". People especially love to see wonky carrots.

  8. This post really resonates with me Mark. Trying to simplify, and know what "enough " really is...

    I've "found" HFW River Cottage programs and have watched all that that i could find. I very much enjoy what he is doing, and kudos for his promotion of wonky food.


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