Selecting the Perfect Produce

Posted on August 22, 2008 by ELCA World Hunger


When you go to the grocery store to buy produce, how do you select precisely which, say, apples or green peppers you’re going to buy? I, for one, go for those that I deem have the best appearance. I reject those with too many spots, I try to choose a color and ripeness that seem good, and depending what I want it for, size sometimes also plays a role.

And then I read this, in the book The End of Food by Paul Roberts:

“Because consumers have come to expect their produce to be as uniform and blemish free as packaged foods, retailers insist that fruits and vegetables meet exacting criteria for quality, visual attractiveness, size, and weight. Avocados headed for the United Kingdom, for example, must come within a half ounce of a target weight. Green beans bound for France must be straight and precisely 100 millimeters long.” (pg. 65)

Hey! I’m that consumer! Well, ok, I don’t require every bean to be exactly the same length. But blemish-free, attractive, size – that’s all me.

The passage goes on to explain that because retailers will only accept a portion of what’s grown, farmers overplant to ensure they get enough perfect produce to meet their agreements with retailers. One exporter said his retail sales account for about 50% or 60% of the running beans he grows; the rest aren’t straight enough. Another 30% of his crop can be processed. But the remaining 10 to 20 percent is thrown away. Though the passage doesn’t explain why, from the larger context of the book, I assume it’s because the remaining 10% or 20% is irregular to a degree that it can’t easily go through the mechanized processing equipment and therefore is not worth the cost of processing.

Think of that. Farmers intentionally grow more than they can sell with the intent of throwing tons of it away! And somehow, I’m wrapped up in this waste, because I’m the one demanding perfect food. I’m not sure what to do with that knowledge. Perhaps the book will help me out; I’m only halfway through it. But there are certainly some opportunities here. Opportunities for me to be more mindful of my food buying criteria, and surely an opportunity for tons of irregular food to be put to better use.

Does anyone know more about this? There’s got to be more to this story, and I’d love to hear about it. Please comment if you have something to add!

-Nancy Michaelis