In Defense of Ugly Vegetables - Produce Needs a Makeover

December 22, 2014

Food waste is of top concern, so how can retailers help ugly produce find its way into the prepared food section as well as shoppers’ baskets and onto their plates?

Produce is the new star in the center of the plate. The Lempert Report sees produce getting the spotlight and the produce department getting a makeover – some might even call it an au naturel face-lift. Produce is increasing in popularity as more shoppers experiment with fun and seasonal choices, and celebrity chefs known for their signature meat dishes are calling meat just a condiment to compliment perfectly prepared vegetables.

We suggest an overhaul of the produce department. Shifting away from just perfect produce, both organic and conventional, bagged and displayed to perfection. What’s needed is a “produce for cooking” section, featuring “ugly produce” offered at a slight discount to entice and change shopper habits. After all, what does it matter if the vegetable you would peel and chop anyway is lumpy with a few superficial spots? It’s still as nutritious and bursting with flavor. The addition of recipe cards in this section would be a welcomed companion. Mintel recently found that in the UK, nearly half (48%) of shoppers agree that they would buy oddly shaped produce if it were good quality. The same research finds a lower price would make these products more attractive, as reported on

Jose Andrés known for his suckling pig and foie gras will be opening up the first of a hopeful chain of vegetable focused fast casual restaurants - fittingly named Beefsteak after the fragrant and tasty heirloom tomato. Several chefs around the world have joined Andrés in singing the praises of beets, chard, mushrooms and more. “It’s less like they’re describing the next food movement, and more like they’ve undergone a full-on religious conversion. Alice Waters, perhaps the original vegetable evangelist, must be proud,” comments the Washington Post.

So how does this translate to the produce department? In produce today we have perfectly curated and bred fruits and vegetables, no dents, lumps, bruises, or brown spots. The industry has trained consumers to look for perfect produce, but what about the tons of produce that gets tossed because it’s not up to consumers’ cosmetic expectations? In some cases, it’s up to 20-40 percent of fresh produce, according to estimates from the United Nations Environment Program.

French retailer Intermarche tried a similar tactic in Provins, outside Paris. Intermarche bought up the lumpy and bumpy stuff that would have gotten discarded and gave it its own aisle in the supermarket, selling it at a 30 percent discount. To convince shoppers that looks may have suffered but taste did not, the retailer also sold soups and shakes made with them.

Mintel also found that over half (56%) of UK adults say they feel that food retailers should do more to reduce the amount of food they throw away, while 28 percent of consumers are concerned about the amount of fruit or vegetables they waste.

If retailers and shoppers are not going to just talk the talk, but walk the walk when it comes to sustainability, food waste, yes that includes ugly produce, needs to find its way into the prepared food section as well as shoppers’ baskets and onto their plates.