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.
“Suffice it to say we’re picky,” a Wegmans spokeswoman said.
So what do the USDA guidelines entail? First, the rules for each commodity are separated into categories—for example, tomatoes used for canning and tomatoes intended to be sold fresh are held to different standards. The standards for each commodity, such as fresh tomatoes,include photos demonstrating what’s not acceptable—worm injury, internal discoloration, hail injury, and sunburn, to name but a handful.
In the standards for broccoli to be sold fresh (as opposed to say, canned or frozen), we were surprised to learn that, beyond a few images dating as far back as 1990, the specific rules are vague, creating the opportunity for further unique interpretation. The accompanying text explains that while broccoli’s most desirable color is green to dark green, some varieties can appear “purplish to blue,” and that such variances are not defects. Sounds nice and inclusive for the broccoli, but it also allows individual grocery stores a lot of leeway. Is that broccoli too purple for, say, Piggly Wiggly? If so, and even if it tastes delicious, it can be deemed unacceptable.
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What of the tomatoes? If a tomato is to be sold fresh in a supermarket, it must be categorized under one of three possible grades. To make the cut into Grade 1, the tomato must meet the following requirements:mature, not overripe or soft, clean, well-developed, fairly well-formed, fairly smooth, and free from decay, freezing injury, sun scald, or damage “of any other cause.” This seems “fairly” practical—we all want our produce free from decay, right? But it leaves a margin for interpretation: What constitutes “fairly” smooth? How can one be certain a tomato is “well-developed”? The visual aids provided by the USDA help puzzle it out, but with no two pieces of produce ever looking exactly the same, there’s some gray area to wade through.
Each commodity has its own set of standards and visual aids, all varying drastically in specifics. So what does this mean for growers? If a farmer wants to sell to a retailer—as opposed to directly to consumers through a farm stand, farmers’ market, or CSA—it’s imperative to plant vegetables bred for uniformity of size and ripening conditions. Planting acres of tomatoes will do you little good if they’re all ready for harvest at different times. Volume, additionally, is critical. As Pallara explains, if you’re going to the trouble of transporting your produce to a store, you really ought to transport a large volume—say, 100 cases instead of 10. Otherwise the costs in fuel and time just aren’t worth it.
It Starts in the Field
Plenty of produce doesn’t even make it out of the field. Because supermarkets require fruits and vegetables to be uniform size,many farmers don’t even bother harvesting too-small or too-big produce. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Dana Gunders, a staff scientist with theNational Resources Defense Council. “An early loss is a good loss,” she explains. “At least this way the nutrients from the plants are going back into the field—not into a landfill. This phenomenon—the difference between harvested produce and the amount made available to the public for consumption—is commonly known as “pre-harvest crop shrink,” and was studied extensivelyby the NRDC in 2012.
But to minimize the amount of produce left in the field, farmers are nipping the problem in the bud: Pallara knows about this firsthand. In the early 1990s, organic tomatoes were just starting to see demand, and Pallara planted ones proven to produce a lot, and to produce consistently. “Some of the more productive plants would produce as much as 30 pounds of tomatoes, but the less productive [that I used to plant] would produce 5 to 7 pounds per plant. So if both plants take up the same amount of space in the ground, the only reason to plant the lower-producing one is because there’s something special about that tomato.” Which seems like a pretty legitimate reason to grow a tomato.
But the higher-producing plants were decidedly not special, says Pallara: “We picked two varieties, one called Mountain Pride and one called Mountain Supreme—both very consistent round, red tomatoes. I put in an acre of those and was very proud of the uniformity. Then my brother came to visit and tried a ripe one, and asked, ‘Why are you growing this crap? This is horrible.’” The tomatoes may have been horrible, but they were red, ripe, and round. Supermarkets bought them because they knew consumers would buy them, and everyone was happy—though, perhaps, Pallara wonders, not as happy as they might have been with a juicy tomato that had a bright, acidic sweetness.
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He may have been right. A few years ago, says Ray Gilmer, vice president of communication at United Fresh Produce Association, consumers began clamoring for a variety of tomato called Ugly Ripe that bills itself as being vibrantly red—”just like old-fashioned tomatoes,” according to seed manufacturer Santa Sweets’ website. ”Consumers felt that the taste profile was superior to what they were used to getting in conventional tomatoes,” Gilmer said. “They appeared to look like heirloom tomatoes, but they were grown commercially. Stores couldn’t stock enough.”
It Ends in the Trash
Not every farmer makes the choice to grow high-volume performers, though. And even those who do sometimes produce fruits and vegetables that are funkily shaped or imperfect, like gnarled tomatoes or kale leaves with tiny pin-prick bites from flea beetle—both a bit unsightly but still completely edible. So what happens to produce that’s rejected before it hits the shelves?
“Generally it goes to waste,” says Pallara.
But at least it gets composted…right?
Pallara just laughs: “You’d be surprised. Unfortunately, the reality is that it most often fills dumpsters.” The NRDC’s Gunders concurs, explaining that in regions with a large agricultural presence, mass quantities of produce is harvested—and subsequently thrown out—daily. “In major agricultural areas, landfills are brimming with produce,” she says, citing the example of lettuce growers. “Say [a farm] process[es] a million pounds of lettuce a day. They’re pretty good at forecasting, but they may harvest 1 percent too much. That’s 1 percent, but 1 percent is still 10,000 pounds of lettuce. They need that off of their dock by the next day, because they’ll have a whole new shipment of lettuce coming in. Often the quickest and easiest thing to do is just send it to a landfill.”
Of course, not every farmer takes the path of least resistance. Gunders cites the real-life example of a California peach farmer saddled with 200,000 pounds of undesirable (however marginally) stone fruit every week. Of that amount, he donates 100,000 pounds to a food bank, and gives the other half to a dairy farmer to use for feed. But efforts like that require coordination, and they aren’t always reliable.
“We hear about all of this produce going to waste, and there are so many people who could use it,” says Gunders. “But the amount and type of produce available is often spontaneous—and it’s usually expensive to transport.”
Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s, is hoping to change this system. He has plans to open a market and prepared-foods shop in Massachusetts this year called Daily Table. The store will sell packaged food that’s passed its “sell-by” date but is still entirely edible (most foods have a generous margin—at least 10 days—before they expire), as well as produce that’s been gleaned from vegetable fields and fruit orchards. The food for sale at Daily Table will be, Rauch says, “nutritionally sound,” if not uniformly or beautiful.
At the heart of Rauch’s mission at Daily Table is the desire to eliminate that waste while providing quality food to his clients, by bridging the gap between traditional grocery stores and farmers’ markets. “There are two situations in which people suspend the need to have perfect-looking fruits and vegetables,” he explains. ”One is in farmers’ markets. Much of the product [there] wouldn’t have made it through a Whole Foods inspection line, but at the farmers’ markets, those qualities are prized. People think it’s ‘authentic.’”
(Gunders makes a case for markets as well, saying, “Farmers’ markets illustrate that consumers have a higher tolerance for cosmetic imperfections than grocery stores give us credit for.”)
The second situation that gives us a little wiggle room? “You could have the weirdest, funkiest produce there is, and the moment you call it an heirloom variety, people go nuts for it,” says Rauch. If you need proof of this, just think about that Ugly Ripe tomato.
So is the solution to rebrand all of our produce? Vow to only buy direct from farmers? Just change our standards? Perhaps a little bit of everything is best. Pallara thinks sourcing fruits and vegetables direct from farmers is much more helpful to the grower—and better for the consumer. One of Pallara’s favorite aspects of the community-supported agriculture model is that “[I]n a CSA you may have a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and degrees of ripeness which you present. That actually serves your membership well because people have a variety of preferences.” Rauch suggests shopping from markets that, like Daily Table, have an eye toward nutrition rather than aesthetics. “We have to make sure we’re utilizing the food that we’re already growing—fruits and vegetables particularly.” Tossing away imperfect-looking produce hurts consumers in the long run, who should ideally be choosing produce based on nutrition and flavor, rather than appearance.
Does this mean we must turn our backs on supermarkets, eating only just-picked carrots, their roots still clumped with dirt? Of course not. Retail stores provide, as Pallara explains, ”a value to people who might not have the opportunity or might not take the time to go to a farmers’ market.” As much as we romanticize the idea of weekly Saturday trips to the farm, it’s just not a reality for everyone. But shopping at a supermarket doesn’t have to mean going in blind—many grocery stores offer produce from local farmers in addition to conventionally grown, mass-produced fruits and vegetables, and that’s a step in the right direction.
One thing’s for sure, though: For affordable, quality nutrition and honest-to-goodness flavor, we need access to imperfect produce. “It’s like cars,” says Rauch. “There’ll always be new ones for sale, but there’s also a market for pre-owned vehicles—they might have a little ding or dent, or something that makes them less valued than a beautiful, new one. But thank god we have a used car market—can you imagine if we could only buy new, perfect vehicles, and when people were done with them they just shipped them off to the junk pile? That’d be a real loss, especially if the car still runs well. There’s got to be somebody who needs that car—somebody who’d appreciate it.”