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WHy People Are Falling in Love With "Ugly Food"

Mar 27, 2015

The "ugly food movement" is taking off around the world, particularly in Europe and Australia, as an answer to the problem of food waste. So far, it has yet to firmly take hold in the United States, but given this country's love of solution-driven food trends, it seems a good bet that ugly food might soon take its place beside local food, organic food, and environmentally conscious eating. "Ugly" foods are those that sellers and buyers often reject because of their appearance, like misshapen vegetables and bruised fruits. Farmers dump them. Supermarkets and restaurants reject them. Consumers historically have avoided them.

The problem of food waste is no joke. By some estimates, a third or more of the food produced globally goes uneaten. The costs are in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Marketing so-called "ugly" food is one answer to the problem. Until recently, the European Union had rules actually preventing the sale of oddly sized or misshapen produce. Some of the rules were hilariously granular: a spear of asparagus could not be sold unless at least 80% of its length was green. The curve of cucumbers was regulated down the millimeter.

As part of a massive effort to reduce waste (2014 was formally designated the "European Year Against Food Waste"), most of those rules were scrapped a few years ago. Now, grocers there are actively marketing such products, and apparently, people are buying them, though it's hard to tell at this point how successful the efforts have been.

Despite the popular name of the movement, marketers generally aren't using the word "ugly." More artful terms are favored. A French supermarket chain is selling "inglorious" foods. The British chain ASDA uses "wonky" (which to American ears might sound as bad as "ugly.") Canada's Loblaws uses "naturally imperfect." Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who has cast himself as a promoter of the "good food movement," has signed on with some British chains to support their efforts.

Other chains are approaching warily. Tesco, the biggest British grocer, sells its wonky foods in parts of Europe, but so far hasn't marketed them in its home country because, it says, British shoppers aren't ready for them. But the company has called for a public-education campaign to get consumers on board.

The trend is growing in Australia, too, thanks in part to Oliver's efforts, though several chains there have been somewhat hesitant as well.

While the movement is unquestionably gaining ground, getting the mainstream on board remains a serious challenge. Consumers in developed countries have been conditioned over decades to expect perfect-looking produce (generally, "perfect" means "uniform," and free of blemishes -- "ugly" foods are just as tasty and nutritious as their prettier counterparts). It might take a long time to move people off those expectations. After all, the organic-food movement began in earnest more than 40 years ago, but only in recent years has it started affecting the food business in a big way. "Ugly" food has a big advantage over organic food, though: it's generally cheaper than mainstream fare, rather than more expensive. That doesn't hurt farmers or sellers one bit, though, since this is all food that would have ended up in the scrap bin: the revenues represent almost pure profit. And in fact, costs are actually reduced, since the foods that once were rejected had to be shipped back to their source.

The U.S., perhaps not surprisingly, has been slower than Europe to take up the trend, but there are some early indications that it might take off here. Bon Appetit Management, a big food-service company owned by the gigantic Compass Group USA, last year launched Imperfectly Delicious Produce, a program to divert ugly foods from the waste stream to the restaurants and cafeterias the company serves.

But such efforts are rare in the United States so far. Until recently, most "ugly" food that wasn't simply thrown away has been given to needy people, though efforts like the Food Recovery Network (which Bon Appetit works with) and the Environmental Protection Agency's Food Recovery Challenge. And such efforts of course do help. But if the private sector can be moved to make "ugly" food not only salable, but commercially popular, that would go a long way toward reducing the shocking amount of food we waste.

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