When a French supermarket chain started selling a line of "ugly" fruits and vegetables two years ago to help reduce food waste, it sold out almost immediately. Customers got the produce at a discount, and farmers could sell misshapen apples and twisted carrots that normally wouldn't make it to the produce aisle. Now the largest grocery chain in the U.S.—Walmart—is testing a similar idea.
A line of apples called "I'm Perfect," all with minor cosmetic flaws that don't affect taste, recently went on shelves at about 300 Walmart stores. Earlier this year, the chain also launched a line of flawed potatoes, called "Spuglies," after growers went through a particularly rough season.
"The supplier came and said, 'hey, we've got potatoes that look a little different— is there a way we can bring these to market?'" says John Forrest Ales, a spokesman for Walmart. "They created the branding. Similar with 'I'm Perfect.' These are flexible frameworks that the suppliers can use when there's enough supply."
Because misshapen produce is a quirk of the weather, the store says it can't offer the produce all the time or in every store. "No one's out there saying I want to grow all these four-legged carrots so we can put these in grocery stores," says Ales. "So how do we provide a framework or solution to quickly seize the opportunity when that happens."
For Walmart, the new products are part of a larger push to reduce food waste, including redesigned "best by" labels that are less confusing for customers. But the retailer's bigger motivation may be keeping prices low for customers, since weird-looking potatoes and apples can be sold at a slight discount.
"We're focused on reducing waste as much as possible because that reduces cost, and we are an everyday low-cost business model," says Ales. "We want to reduce waste so all of that investment can go into price on the shelf so that customers are loyal. So when we talk to suppliers, those conversations always focus on how do we maximize the yield and try to go for 100% of what you're offering."
Though food waste experts estimate that 20%-30% of some crops can be lost because the food doesn't look quite perfect, cosmetically challenged produce does often find other uses. Walmart, for example, might buy misshapen potatoes to make its store-brand frozen food. Suppliers often turn imperfect apples into apple juice, applesauce, or sliced apples; Walmart also packages unusually small apples in lunch kits.
The newly branded bags of apples are just one more way to ensure that fruit can stay out of landfills. "We want our suppliers to have options," he says. "Obviously, we want the food to be used."
As imperfect fruit and vegetables become more common in grocery stores, maybe they will also begin to change norms about what customers expect to see in produce aisles—and make people less likely to pass over a slightly dinged apple when it's sitting in a "normal" pile.
"Creative marketing can play a catalytic role in shifting consumer views about what product attributes are not only acceptable but, in fact, desirable," says JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate in the food and agriculture program at NRDC, a nonprofit that has studied food waste. "Innovative marketers are finding new ways to make a virtue out of imperfection. As people try out these products, I think they’ll find that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder."
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