A recent Harris Poll found that eight in ten Americans say that finding fresh produce that is not blemished or misshapen in any way is at least somewhat important to them and 43% say it is very or extremely important to them.
In fact, it is so important that beauty trumped other on-trend values, including whether it was locally grown, organic and the retailer’s food waste practice, according to the poll.
But by catering to this value, are retailers and manufacturers missing an opportunity to improve their margins by using misshapen or scarred produce, which is usually sold for less? Likewise, could they generate higher sales by spinning the issue as a way to reduce food waste and food insecurity – which are two other upward trending values among many consumers?
This episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast explores the full marketing potential of ugly fruits and vegetables as well as the challenges that manufacturers and retailers must overcome to encourage consumers to embrace a two-headed rutabaga or five-fingered carrot.
Jordan Figueiredo, founder of endfoodwast.org and the light-hearted Twitter campaign @UglyFruitandVeg outlines the extent of the food waste problem related to the general dismissal of ugly produce and how he is working with retailers to change the story.
He says ugly produce is “low hanging fruit – pun intended,” for driving sales, lowering margins, feeding the hungry and reducing emissions.
He explains somewhere around 20-25% of all produce is wasted before it even reaches stores, mostly for cosmetic reasons, which is “ridiculous because mostly it is size … where something is too small or too big or not the preferred size to fit on the shelf and stack.”
Other reasons include “plants have little scuffs or scars on them because of wind or the growing process and nature doesn’t grow everything the same,” he said.
The size of produce can affect its flavor, with smaller options often tasting sweeter, but for the most part “ugly” produce is just as – if not more – nutritious than its perfect counterparts, Figueiredo said, explaining: “I have also read some studies … on this and sometimes when produce fights off a pest or bug it can create higher nutrient content.”
He added to those who might shun a deformed fruit of vegetable because they fear it is GMO that “actually, the stuff that has … more modifications or pesticides sprayed on them is the stuff that looks more perfect, because that is the whole idea behind the science – to grow things that don’t have issues or fight off pests more.”
What will it take to create market demand?
With the question about nutrition settled, the next obvious question is what would it take to get consumers to overlook the blemishes of ugly produce and actually buy it – creating demand in the marketplace.
Well, as is the case with many products that are underperforming – promotions and deals can help. The Harris Poll found only one in five adults would pay the same price for ugly produce as the more familiar perfect produce. But, according to the poll, a whopping 76% of Americans said they would willingly eat misshapen fruits and veggies if they could pay less for it.
Figueiredo noted that the few grocery stores that regularly sell ugly produce discount it for about 30-50%, which is a big savings for consumers and a big difference for farmers who otherwise might not be able to sell it.
In addition, selling ugly produce helps offset losses associated with growing and harvesting the products that might not otherwise be recouped, he added.
Petitions push retailers to sell ugly produce
Recognizing the potential of ugly produce to help feed hungry Americans as well as up the overall fruit and veggie consumption in the nation’s diet, Figueiredo teamed with Stefanie Sacks to petition several large retailers to market misshapen fruits and vegetables.
The first retailer under scrutiny by the duo and 111,620 people who signed their petition on change.org was Whole Foods, which announced in March a deal with Imperfect Produce to test selling misshapen produce in Northern California. Since then, the pilot has expanded to 20 stores, which Figueiredo acknowledges is only a fraction of the retailers 400 stores, but it is a start.
Next on the duo’s list was Walmart, which the day before Figueiredo was scheduled to deliver the change.org petition asking it to sell less than perfect produce announced that it would oddly shaped potatoes – or Spuglies.
However, Figueiredo is not satisfied with this victory, noting that the potatoes were damaged by bad weather and that Walmart has not made an ongoing commitment to sell ugly produce. Walmart said it didn’t make such a commitment because sourcing less than perfect produce can be inconsistent, making it difficult to create a steady brand.
But Figueiredo disagrees. He argues, “There are two ways of looking at it. Yes, Walmart is putting it in a lot of stores, but there is ugly produce everywhere, all year around – so this is a huge opportunity to provide the produce for less, so that maybe potentially more people can eat produce.”
The later point is removed from the issue of food waste, but equally important considering only 13% of Americans eat their daily five fruits and vegetables, often because they can’t afford it. “Again, it is a huge opportunity to get people eating healthier by having this discounted produce,” he said.
Walmart and Whole Foods are just the start. Figueiredo is now petitioning Target, but so far the campaign has not generated the same attention and traction as the petitions against Walmart and Whole Foods, he acknowledged. As of Oct. 20 it had just over 28,000 signatures and needs a total of 35,000.
Many other retailers have acted without pressure from a petition – moves that Figueiredo lauds.
Educating Americans to create demand
Getting ugly produce on store shelves is only part of the battle – Americans also need to buy and eat it, which can be a tall order.
According to the Harris Poll, fewer than three in 10 Americans remember buying ugly produce in the last year compared to 51% who were 100% sure they did not.
To help raise awareness that less than perfect produce exists and can be fun to eat, Figueiredo manages a social media campaign on Twitter under the handle @uglyfruitandveg, which shares fanciful photos of misshapen fruits and veggies with comical captions.
Figueiredo says the campaign has been tremendously successful, generating followers in more than 190 countries and monthly media attention, in large part because it doesn’t shame people for wasting food. Rather, it celebrates the ugly produce in a fun, positive way that excites people to find and try ugly produce.
Many manufacturers already are on board
Using ugly produce to make packaged food makes economical sense since it is sold for less and all looks the same once it is chopped and processed, Figueiredo said. But, he added, more companies should talk about what they are doing and how it reduces food waste so that consumers are less intimidated by the concept.
“People don’t know they are already eating ugly produce,” but if companies such as Tree Top Foods, which has always used ugly apples and other fruits, shared what they are doing consumers would see ugly produce as fine, Figueiredo said.
He also noted that the marketing message resonates well with many younger consumers who are worried about sustainability issues and actively want to help reduce food waste. He pointed to Misfit Juicery as an example of one of many “really cool entrepreneurs” that include messages on packaging about less than perfect produce and the effort to feed the world by wasting less food.