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The impact of misshapen produce on food wastage

No one left behind is the promise of Agenda 2030 and it implies both the value and the commitment of every person. Sustainable and responsible practices have to become central in everyone’s everyday life, and food production and consumption represent a great share of life. Target 12.3 of SDGs aims at reducing the loss and waste of food at both levels. According to FAO estimates, 14 percent of the food is lost after harvest all around the world, and 17 percent is lost in retail and by consumers. In the EU 153.5 million tonnes of food is wasted, and even though globally the EU registers a lower level of food loss, the trend is expected to increase. The problem has a multileveled nature and food is lost along the value chain, from production to retail and consumption. The layered aspect of the issue requires a multilevel approach.

Quality standards require that produce, in particular fruit and vegetables, conform to certain customary characteristics to provide consumers with safe and edible produce. Such standards become mandatory for producers but are applied also by consumers on an individual scale of preference. Cosmetic aspects of products are often included in quality standards even if not directly covered. These refer to the color, shape, and dimension of fruits and vegetables and serve no other purpose than aesthetics and appeal. Regulations by public authority are also coupled with private standards imposed by middlemen and retail organizations. In the EU, Commission Regulation n. 543/2011 implementing Council Regulation n. 1234/2007 which was replaced by Council Regulation n. 1308/2013 impose general and product-specific marketing standards. Some of the standards covered by the Regulations refer to purely cosmetic aspects which deny some products access to the market and consumption based only on beauty standards.

Amendment and relaxation of such standards could ensure that fewer levels of food are lost or discarded along the value chain. Such modifications should however be balanced with the possible negative effects on markets and farmers and should be taken cautiously but urgently. This would ensure that food that is not appealing to the eye but safe and edible is consumed and not wasted. The relaxation of standards must be ensured also by private actors. Even though the public authority would impose looser norms, supermarkets and retailers could impose their private cosmetic standards for fear the consumers would be estranged by misshapen food. The effort toward responsible production should be met by responsible consumption practices. Consumers are more prone to purchase more appealing and aesthetically pleasing produce. The implied rationale is that more beautiful produce is likely to be tastier and safer for health. However, this is a misconception. Research has shown that lightly damaged or misshapen fruit and vegetables do not have any difference in terms of nutrients from more regular produce. Consumers’ preference is based on a biased prototype and a misleading association between beauty and taste.

In the context of the recently launched International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, relevant initiatives should address the patterns of production and consumption related to cosmetic aspects of produce, involving all the relevant stakeholders, in particular consumer and retail organizations and supermarkets. Production and consumption affect each other in a virtuous, and unfortunately often vicious, cycle. Any initiative should be adopted taking into consideration this aspect and should have a twofold objective of raising knowledge and awareness both in consumers and sellers.

The idea is to create an event in each supermarket where people are presented with food prepared by professional chefs starting from misshapen produce, to show consumers that misshapen food is as delicious as beautiful food. People should at first be unaware that cooked food is made from misshapen produce. In each event, an awareness orientation should be conducted on the benefits of misshapen produce on global food loss, and that no harm comes from them for the health. Finally, since just telling people something is not enough, showing and experiencing is the key to affecting behavioral patterns, where possible people should be introduced to food in its natural context. Evidence has shown that when it comes to food consumers are better influenced by direct experience. Letting people harvest produce could make people closer to nature and show them that natural fruit and vegetables come in all sorts of shapes and dimensions, which is very far from the common perfection misconception.

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