Consumer driven food trends are nothing new. “Organics,” gluten-free, and—more recently—buying “local” have all captured consumers, encouraging supermarkets around the globe and in Australia to respond. But an emerging food trend in Europe may have the biggest impact on what we buy each week: ugly food.
What is the “ugly food” movement?
It is estimated that one-third of all the food produced in the world is never consumed, with the total cost of that food waste as high as $400 billion a year.
In response to the European Commission’s plan to make 2014 the “European Year Against Food Waste” and the EU’s scrapping of rules that prevented the sale of oddly-sized or misshapen fruit and vegetables, supermarkets across Europe were quick to respond.
The overarching objective of the ugly food movement is to reduce food waste, by selling to consumers those fruit and vegetables that would normally be either rejected by supermarket buyers or dumped by farmers.
How do you market ugly food?
But how do you market ugly food? The first rule: don’t use the word “ugly” to describe the product.
French supermarket Intermarché instead uses the term “inglorious” fruit and vegetables. UK retailer ASDA promotes “wonky” fruit & vegetables.
Late last year, Australia’s largest supermarket retailer Woolworths released its “Odd Bunch” campaign, a replication of the ASDA “ugly good” strategy, right down to the same celebrity chef. At the same time NSW food retailer Harris Farms launched its “imperfect picks” range.
More recently, Canada’s largest supermarket, Loblaws, announced the rollout of its “naturally imperfect” range.
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has been used by both ASDA and Woolworths to help add credibility and consumer interest to the campaigns.
How “ugly” is too ugly?
Not all supermarkets have been quick to follow suit. Some instead are cautiously approaching this new phenomenon.
Tesco, the UK’s largest food retailer, told the House of Lords’ EU Sub-Committee on Agriculture last year that its supermarkets regularly supplied misshaped fruit and vegetables to Eastern and Central European stores, but found that British consumers consistently demanded better quality. It called for consumer education campaigns to support the program.
In Australia, both Coles and Aldi have remained silent on whether they will implement such a program. While it’s too early to tell whether this foray into “ugly food” will be a resounding success for supermarket retailers, it is not unreasonable to assume that Woolworths, and other Australian supermarkets may struggle to get Australian shoppers onside. After many years of store managers removing offending items from shelves, and produce buyers rejecting blemished and oddly-shaped produce, Australian shoppers have been conditioned to expect only the very highest levels of freshness, quality and aesthetics.
“Taste, not waste” is good for business
Supermarkets that have effectively launched an “ugly food” program have gained from both a perceived positive corporate social responsibility position and increased sales.
Intermarché gained strong public support during the initial launch of its “Inglorious Fruit and Vegetable” campaign, selling 1.2 tonnes of misshapen fruit and vegetables across its stores in just two days, and receiving a 24% increase in foot traffic, 3.6 million views on Youtube and over 500,000 Facebook “likes”.
Being able to provide lower-priced fresh fruit and vegetables to low socioeconomic consumer groups—while promoting healthy eating—is a positive outcome for both retailers and shoppers. Ultimately, an “ugly food” program is a win-win for all those in the supply chain; growers, retailers and consumers.
It also allows supply chain costs to be reduced: “ugly” produce is normally transported from the farm gate to the market, only to be rejected, then transported back and disposed of. Now, such produce can be accepted, albeit at a lower “buy” price and sent onto stores as an “ugly food” alternative. This reduces costs to farmers, supermarkets and eventually shoppers.
A cautionary note
Assuming retailers are successful in convincing consumers of the merits of “ugly food”, the strategy could create price pressure across the category. From a shopper’s perspective, when provided a choice of loose, somewhat misshaped carrots at a low price, versus perfectly presented, aesthetically pleasing, high-priced carrots, will shoppers simply switch to the cheaper option? Then will price-discounted, lower quality produce reduce waste? Some say no.
If campaigns to promote taste over waste are successful on a grand scale, there could be unintentional consequences for farmers. Consider the grower who has invested heavily in agriculture infrastructure and processes to ensure their potatoes meet very high standards set by supermarkets, only to find the market has now shifted to the “ugly” alternative.
Finally, the alleged power of the major supermarkets has come under increasing criticism and inquiry. Potentially the “ugly food” movement could inadvertently create a market where supermarket buyers are able to set very low “buy” prices for subjectively imperfect fruit and vegetables, with the alternative being to reject.