Are the Beauty Standards for Fruits & Vegetables Unfair?
It’s a tough world out there for a tomato. Chances are high that you’re packed into a tight greenhouse and getting regularly doused with chemicals. Even if you’re organic, even if you’re grown in fertile, volcanic soil, even if you make it to maturity unscathed, well, you still might not be good enough to make it to the big time—to the gleaming shelves of a well-lit supermarket. It’s not that you aren’t tasty. No, this is all about how good you look. If you’re not too big, you’re too small. If your skin’s not a bit mottled, you’re a funny shape. What’s worse, there are thousands of other pert, pretty tomatoes in line behind you—red, round tomatoes without a blemish to be found. Tomatoes who are definitely going to be chosen and displayed and purchased and eaten. Tomatoes that aren’t half as juicy and sweet as you are. And you? You don’t even have the dignity of being composted. For the ugly tomato, life most often ends in a dumpster.
All fruits and vegetables are held to incredibly high aesthetic standards when it comes to stocking supermarket shelves. It doesn’t matter if they’re organic or conventional, nutritious or vitamin-deficient, flavorful or bland—if they don’t meet the criteria established by the government and by the supermarkets themselves, they won’t—can’t—be sold to the majority of American consumers. And if they can’t be sold, they won’t be eaten. According to a report from the USDA earlier this year, Americans let 25 billion pounds of produce go to waste in 2010. So, why are supermarkets rejecting all this ugly-but-delicious produce?
“The only thing a customer can know about a piece of produce bought from a supermarket is what they can see,” explains Leonard Pallara, a farming consultant with Organic Sage Consulting who used to grow vegetables at Upper Meadows Farm in New Jersey. “If they’re really being thoughtful, they may smell it—but most supermarket produce has been refrigerated, which kills the aroma. So the single greatest determinant factor that a person has for picking a piece is appearance.”
Looks matter, but it’s not just about aesthetics. Says Pallara, “Longevity, or shelf life, [also] becomes paramount. If something looks good the day it’s delivered but not the next day, the retailer has only one day to sell it or they lose out. Shelf life also becomes a critical issue.” And consider this: For produce to even make it to the grocery store, it must be transported in crates or pallets. When distributors are dealing with fruits and vegetables of varying sizes and shapes, packing a crate becomes a game of Tetris—and not a particularly fun one. In fact, the USDA grading system is based on sizing and conditions of ripeness. In other words, the factors supermarkets consider when purchasing produce are appearance, longevity, and packability—taste and nutrition don’t even make the list.
There Are Standards, People! Standards!
The current USDA guidelines for traditional retail outlets are available for public viewing and are sorted by commodity (broccoli, apples, peas) and use (freezing, canning, pies). The three supermarket chains we contacted about the standards they adhered to cited the USDA guidelines as their own guidelines for purchasing, though they all declined to comment on whether their own stores employed specific and unique standards as well.