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Last Updated: Monday, 10 October 2005, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
Strange fruit
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Clockwise from left: pumpkin, berries, carrots, turnip
Every year, thousands of tons of fruit and veg are rejected by supermarkets not on taste grounds, but because they don't look good. "Ugly" veg is a fact of farming, but nowadays few of us see it.

Maybe Esther Rantzen should take some of the blame.

That's Life, the Sunday night consumer show hosted by Rantzen on BBC One in the 1970s and 80s, never tired of poking fun at, er, slightly smutty-looking vegetables.

In today's supermarkets there is no place, amid the shelves of lustrous fruits and vegetables, for such comically deformed specimens.

The produce aisles have become more akin to a beauty pageant with their glossy red tomatoes, scrubbed stalks of celery, blemish-free apples and pleasingly rounded oranges.

But a growing number of food campaigners say that in this quest to make everything we buy visually flawless, we have lost something more important: taste.

The National Trust is the latest campaign group to add its voice to the growing criticism of ethnically cleansed produce.

VOTE FOR YOUR CARROT
Carrots vote
Which carrot (above) would you rather buy?
a) supermarket stunner
 31.65% 
b) gnarled and knobbly
 59.57% 
c) I don't like carrots
 8.78% 
695 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
It wants to flaunt the imperfections that are commonplace in all naturally grown produce, and is launching a year-long competition to find Britain's ugliest vegetable.

"From two legged carrots to corkscrew runner beans," it says. "As retailers place an increasing emphasis on perfect vegetables the Trust wants everyone to celebrate Ugly Veg."

Sniggering apart, the contest highlights how our tastebuds have come to be conquered by our eyes, and how an overwhelming amount of good tasting food is dumped simply because it doesn't look the part.

Today, the big supermarkets routinely stipulate to farmers what their produce - both conventional and organic - should look like.

Supermarkets sell 80% of Britain's fruit and veg, a remarkable reversal from the 1970s, says author Joanna Blythman, when traditional wholesale markets traded 90% of fresh produce in the UK, servicing greengrocers and market stalls.

Restrict choice

Incredible though it seems, before the mid 70s, British supermarkets had little interest in selling fresh goods. As they grew more powerful, they began to bypass the wholesale markets and take direct control of their supply chains. It meant lower prices for the consumer, who could buy a rich variety of horticultural produce - grown in Britain and abroad - all under one roof.

Big pumpkin
Trick or treat - it may look impressive, but what does it taste like?
But the streamlining process has narrowed consumer choice, favouring a small variety of the most popular produce.

Pack-sold fruit and veg must be of a largely uniform size and weight, so they can carry the same price. Centralised sourcing also favours varieties that are hardy enough to withstand hundreds of miles in transportation.

The Elsanta strawberry is a classic example. While food critics deplore its crunchiness and lack of taste, the Elsanta, developed in the 1960s, is tough enough to withstand weeks in cold storage and emerge looking glossy and firm.

Traditional English varieties such as the sweeter, more perfumed Cambridge Favourite, which in 1984 accounted for 70% of sales, have been sidelined. Today, the Elsanta accounts for more than 80% of the market.

Supermarkets say they are simply responding to customer demands - "ugly" fruit and veg gets left on the shelf. Sainsbury's, for example, says it works "very closely with our growers to supply cucumbers that match a certain specification".

Vicious circle

"In fact when we have sold cucumbers of various shapes and sizes in the past - this caused a decrease in sales." Sainsbury's says the "waste" is sold on to catering companies.

Market
Cosmetic appearance seems to have little sway in many other countries
But Jeanette Longfield, of Sustain, which campaigns for "better food and farming", says we are caught in a "vicious circle" that no one is willing to break.

Farmer Bruce Carlisle is used to seeing hundreds of tons of his potatoes rejected at every harvest. Thirty percent of the crop he delivers is rejected, almost all of which would "taste fine".

"As a farmer it's the biggest slap in the face you can get," he says.

His organic status means his use of chemicals is severely restricted, but he is "cut no slack" - his crops must still meet rigorous cosmetic criteria.

Bacterial infections, such as black scurf, which causes irregular black patches on spuds, can easily be scrubbed off and make no difference to the taste.

"We're totally ignorant," says Mr Carlisle, drawing a distinction between British attitudes and those of shoppers in countries such as Italy.

Animal feed

"Everyone there knows that blemishes on melons, for example, are a sign of high sugar content. They taste better. The Italians actually put a premium on potatoes with silver scurf, which are crispier when baked.

"The organic farmers in Italy laugh at British organic supermarket standards. What they don't sell [to the UK] goes to local farmers' markets, and below that, conventional markets."

Mr Carlisle's rejected stock, meanwhile, goes towards livestock feed.

Joanna Blythman insists the argument is by no means limited to organic produce. Conventionally-farmed fruit often tastes better, she says, but much of this never reaches the shelves because it doesn't look the part.

"It's my theory this is why fruit and veg consumption is so low in the UK, because they are very unrewarding to eat."


Add your comments to this story using the form below:

Grow your own. Freshly plucked from the ground, they taste and smell so much better. It allows you to eat certain vegetables while still young (such as carrots) which improves the taste even more. It puts your kitchen waste to great use and keeps it out of a landfill site. You get to appreciate the wider variety of fruit and vegetables out there that you would not normally be able to buy in this country (Salsify and Scorzonera are widely available in other European supermarkets). Eating in-season no longer becomes a historical constraint but a delight. It's cheaper. And it makes you fitter and healthier too. Any small garden can produce a large amount of fruit and veg.
Karla Parussel, Clackmannanshire

I have recently visited Madeira, where bananas are grown everywhere. Tons of fruit are thrown away every year because the EU doesn't think their bananas are the right shape, therefore they can't export them. Many farmers in the UK are in the same situation - in their case it is the big supermarkets that reject their fruit and veg. It is absolutely bonkers. Buy straight from the farmer.
M Tucker, UK

I would to be able to buy proper fruit and veg. If you go to markets in Europe you will find fruit and veg that looks like it should and more importantly, it tastes like it should! I try to buy all organic, but even this has strict size and shape standards. It is criminal to be throwing all this food away when there is nothing wrong with it. If the supermarkets stock it, I would certainly buy it.
Sally, Hampshire

I absolutely agree. The French and Italians don't fall for this rubbish. Take some of what we are forced to buy to Spain and they laugh their heads off, they send most of what they throw away over to the UK for supermarkets to sell at a handsome profit.
Allan, UK

I can't stand to go into a supermarket and see every fruit and vegetable looking identicle. It's not natural! Often the less 'attractive' ones have better taste anyway. That's what I care about. When it is cut up and cooked it does not matter what it looked like on the shelf.
Mark Prockter, England

The fruit/veg that is rejected for being ugly does not go for animal feed, at least, not all of it. There is an already huge (and still growing fast) industry in prepared fruit & vegetables, which is a user of this type of produce. Once a fruit/vegetable has been peeled/sliced/juiced, it does not matter what the whole piece looked like to begin with.
Chris Chitty, Bourne, UK

What irritates me most is supermarkets telling me what I must eat, when I would like the choice myself. Also I keep reading Euro standards of the size and shape of fruit and veg, has anyone told nature what shape it should produce?
Jim, York UK

Having just returned from Andalusia in the South of Spain, I've seen first-hand the kind of fruit and vegetables that the UK supermarkets continue to reject. Ugly they may be, but big and flavoursome is preferable to the nondescript foodstuffs we see in the Morrisons, Tescos and Asdas of the world.
Ronnie Brown, Scotland

I agree bring back the ugly food...it should all be about the taste. Recently in Spain I was overwhelmed by the quality on offer at the supermarkets, all kinds of variety on display. The big players in the UK should take a leaf out of their book.
Alex, UK

It brought home to me how "ugly" fruit and veg can be really tasty when we have gone on holiday to Spanish territory (Spain, Majorca etc) looking in the markets. The tomatoes were not the gleaming, perfect red spheres you buy in a Britsh supermarket, but large lumpy bumpy red objects. But the taste... wonderful! I hate the fact that we can only buy what the buyers insist we want - look perfect but with ABSOLUTELY no taste with a pappy texture.
David J, England

We have recently started have a weekly organic veg box from a local farm, the food tastes better, is grown locally and costs less than the supermarkets' non organic. There is more to quality than appearance, I think the public is beginning to realise this, or at least, I hope so.
Robert Bone, UK

I receive a box of vegetables that are in season and grown in the UK. The farm goes to great lengths to explain what's in the box, suggested recipes and why the vegetables may not be as pretty or clean as supermarket veggies. Tomatoes, mushrooms, pak choi and fennel have never tasted so good - even if a little more effort is required to clean them!
Tabitha, UK

I have recently started buying my veg from a (fairly) local organic nursery, which will deliver me a seasonal selection every week. It has been so nice to taste carrots that actually taste of carrot, rather than the rather tasteless options from the supermarket. Ok, so they don't look very pretty and they are still dirty when I get them, but it is the taste and quality of the produce that matters.
Clare, UK

I actively buy the so-called misshapen fruit and veg as it's a sign that they've come from a real farm and not some intensive hyper-field sprayed with all sorts of toxins.
Andrew, UK

Being Australian I think this is totally bizarre! I would give anything for a big ugly pumpkin right now, but I can't find them anywhere. It's such a waste. Long live ugly fruit and veg!
Anon, Aussie in UK

As anyone who has kept hens knows, there are some seriously scary-looking eggs that occasionally turn up in the average nestbox. They would be instantly rejected by any supermarket, but they taste just as fabulous as the 'normal' home-grown eggs. We really must stop choosing food with our eyes; otherwise we'll end up with perfect-looking, tasteless, boring food that is much better-travelled than its consumers.
Sarah, Reading, UK

When I shopped recently at a French hypermarket, I noticed that some of the fruit was far from perfect looking, yet exactly the same brands of fruit in British supermarkets are always perfect. I now know where all the produce ends up that is rejected by British supermarkets.
Nicholas F Hodder, London, UK

I thought this veg ended up in the 'no frills' packaging?
Martin Costello, Swindon, Uk

Bring back ugly veg! There was nothing better as a 70's kid to be helping my mum prepare Sunday lunch and we'd find a potato or carrot etc that looked like a cartoon character... or had a face in it! Then we'd save it or add bits to it to create the character further, and muck about doing silly voices for the characters... you know, back in the day when food was fun. Plus perfect potato's make perfectly formed crisps which is no fun.. remember the time you were having your packed lunch at school and you pulled out THE BIGGEST crisp mankind had ever seen and you showed it off to all your friends - then bathed in the glory. The days of simple pleasures are long gone in our dull, uniform, bland exsistence!
Jay, England

Unfortunately, this is just another manifestation of the complete detachment of most people in urban areas from the realities of where their food actually comes from. The only way round this is for the government to lean heavily on the supermarkets.
Gordon Burgess-Parker, England

Couldn't agree more with the idea that "odd" looking fruit and veg tastes just as good and the supermarkets' plans to wipe it out are harming our food buying habits. I go to a greengrocers for my weekly fruit and veg and get a HUGE supply for under 15 a week. Much of this looks a little odd or has the odd blemish, but it keeps longer than supermarket produce, tastes much better and is a lot fresher and healthier. I grow my own too, and know that sometimes the "odd" ones taste the best. The beef tomatoes I've grown with holes at the bottom where they haven't quite formed properly are some of the best tomatoes I have ever tasted.
Alex, Durham, UK

I remember as a teenager, being surprised at the home-grown cucumbers that my mother grew, which were far from the straight, smooth supermarket varieties, being lumpier and with bristles. Apart from needing to be peeled, they always tasted far better than the boring shop-bought ones. The same goes for home-grown tomatoes.
Kate, UK

Why all this attack on supermarkets? Everyone has long known that presentation and appearance in food is essential to it's enjoyment. Let's face it you went to a restaurant and they slopped the food on your plate-you'd complain,no matter how delicious it was. It's the same with the produce we have at home these days
Ed, UK

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