Wonky Veg

Wonky Veg: What is Happening to Retailer Honesty?

Food Industry insider Mark Palmer explains why ‘wonky veg’ often isn’t wonky and uncovers the truth behind retailer practices, and the impact on growers..

This blog was inspired by a simple post that came across my Twitter feed of a Tesco customer showing proudly how they had bought some wonky veg. I made a comment of how they were being mislead as the carrots were not wonky and from there I realised how much of a confidence trick they retailers were playing on customers who care about what they buy. This was the picture:

Thank you to Rita Hagan for permission to use the picture and for accepting my challenge of her tweet with politeness and interest.

As you can see the wonky carrot on the bag picture does not reflect what is in the bag.

Wonky Veg

When Rita tweeted Tesco asking for clarification, the arrogance of the reply was astounding

So this lead to my thoughts:

The big six retailers

The majority of the food we purchase comes from the big six retailers in the UK, all of whom are looking for the next big item to sell on their shelves. They look to somewhere like https://www.rangeme.com/ to find sellers that they may be able to show the public. With this domination of the market, they in turn, have the ability to communicate with us, the consumers, in a away that is probably only been held in the past by Government. Apart from family, friends and employers, we potentially spend more time under their influence than any other factor in our lives.

The retailers have transformed and refined the act of buying food to such an extent that most shoppers probably do not start to understand or, I suspect, want now, to think about the issues that surround this simple act. As such we rely totally on what retailers tell us, that they are acting in responsible and caring ways, helping us get the best, most ethical, environmentally safe food and is the cheapest it will be.

When walking round any food retailer, the messages we get are multi factorial, many subliminal and all designed to help us make the “right choice” for us. We then make our choice, feeling we have done our bit for the brand/farmer/environment/fair price/cost/family/ease of use/treat/guilty pleasure/……./……../…….. (insert your own words). These purchasing decisions are aided by our concerns from external influences, press, social media, TV….. when causes rise to the top for their 15 mins of fame, new trends appear and the cycle continues.

Now I understand the pressure retailers have been under for the past few years and the shareholder pressure the “big four” have been under. Having worked inside the food industry for many years it is no surprise they have got to this stage now. However it does seem the processes they developed over the years are now starting to unravel. Retailers are madly trying to row themselves out of their own created creeks with paddles that are becoming more flimsy and canoes with more holes than any time in their history.

My past blogs have majored on the methods by which retailers have encouraged waste in the produce supply chain, by use of artificial specifications, pricing, best before dates, order and sales disparity and a myriad of subtle and not so subtle means to their perceived advantage over the competition and drive to achieve more sales. General customers do not appreciate or understand most of these actions and when they are told something by the retailer assume they are being told the truth especially when these messages are coinciding with the general media zeitgeist Trust in where their food comes from, i.e. the retailer is paramount.

Retailer marketing practices

Retailers claim they have the their customers best intentions at heart and all their customers must be free to chose the produce that suits them the best, all they is doing is facilitating the customers right and ability to choose. This is correct on a surface level, it is all there somewhere in their offer, where it be Basics, Fair Trade, Wonky Veg, Organic, Taste the Difference………….all is on the shelf for us to buy. Our purchases then enter the “big data” number crunching that they use to decide what they should be doing, what trends are occurring, how their use of media, in store adverts, TV ads, campaigning and all the other ways of communicating with us are working. This then allows them to plan forward strategies, so while seeming to set the agenda, all they really do is follow the crowd…Us!

Now all of a sudden wonky veg has come up the priority list for the retailers and they have to be seen to do something about it. My first blog regarding the waste in the produce supply chain, Vegetables, Best Before Dates and Food Waste was posted in Jan 2015. It was prompted by my reading of Tristram Stuart’s book on food waste and my realising no one from within the industry was saying it how it is.

With Tristram’s and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s War on Waste campaigning the retailers have responded by introducing “wonky veg” selections alongside “normal” vegetables. These tend to be sold at lower prices and promoted as ensuring more of the crop is being used, reducing waste in the supply chain, environmentally friendly etc etc…… However they are all stretching the truth, at best, and lying to customers at worst.

In principle I initially welcomed the principle of what was happening, with some reservations, knowing how they work. But what is now happening is the creation of specific lines of “wonky veg” that are not actually wonky! They are playing the game with consumers and selling them vegetables that are either not from their supply chain, or that are being called wonky, to meet a another niche product line. This leaves the consumer feeling they have done good things for the planet, the farmer and reduced waste. In truth all is has done in the main, is to create an untruth, that treats all involved with disrespect and a cynical contempt.

I have purchased “wonky veg” from retailers to use for myself, to see how wonky it is. Now bearing in mind I have been growing and supplying vegetables for over 30 years and packing vegetables for retailers for over ten years, I think I have the right to claim some degree of knowledge in this area.

What happens before the ‘wonky veg’ arrives on the supermarket shelves

If we look at typical wonky veg lines of roots, carrots, onions and potatoes supplied to retailers they are graded at least twice before they reach the shelf. Firstly on farm when harvested, surplus soil, tops and obvious rotten, broken damaged ones are removed, the produce is then generally either dried and stored (potatoes and onions) or moved directly for further processing, ( carrots).

They then enter the packing factory. Potatoes and carrots are washed, size graded, by diameter and passed through an inspection line, which used to consist of people throwing out badly damaged, mis-coloured and unsuitable roots. This is now mainly done using automated optical graders that can sort electronically individual vegetables, computer controlled, that can measure and remove finely tuned defects to different grades, retail, wholesale waste etc. After this they are packed into bags, ready for distribution.

These advertising films from Tong and Haith UK machinery manufacturers freely available on You Tube show carrot and potato packing in operation.

It can be seen the way carrots are split graded with small diameter ones being removed and the final hand grade removing slightly bent ones to waste. Carrot growing is now so developed the vast majority of the crop is suitable to be sold without any being thrown out as a waste or wonky veg as can be seen when looking at the crop leaving the washer, at this point no carrots have been removed, how many truly wonky ones can be seen, actually very few. The size grading is where most waste is artificially introduced. Retailer specifications prescribe exactly to the mm the diameter allowed in bags. If a carrot is under generally 20 mm sold as stock feed, or over 35 mm at the crown may go for further processing, or wholesale sales. It is a similar method for potatoes.

These films show typical pack house operations today, fast, efficient and able to provide exactly what their retail customer requires, down to the last minor blemish or mm of size.

At no point in any of these films did we see lots of what retailers imply is wonky veg.

The reason is, for the crops shown the “wonky veg” is more down to the minor blemish on the skin or the slight difference in size determined by the retailer specification. It is nothing more than that.

What is happening is the retailer is slightly changing these parameters, or creating new parameters and calling them wonky.

Couple these new crop parameters with branding, such as is being used by Tesco, Morrisons and ASDA customers are being fooled into thinking they are being sold something they are not.

Retailers should be removing the artificial wonky specifications and should just pack the crop into bags. Remove the obvious rots, badly damaged, but leave the rest in. It may mean they have two sizes in bags, small produce and big produce, but that is all. If we as customers think about it, when we cook carrots, what do we do, we peel and slice them up, so does it matter the size of the original? How many times do you cook whole carrots or onions.

Lower prices for growers

The other knock on effect of the creation of artificial wonky veg is the reduction in the overall price of the crop, which in turn feeds back to the grower. It may seem that the price on the shelf of this wonky veg is much lower than “normal veg” beside it. However all this does is reduce the price paid overall to the grower. There has been huge deflation in food prices over the last three years and as I spend my time with many large vegetable growers, I am greatly aware none are making any money. The retailer pressures, mean few are enjoying the pleasure of growing good food, that most came into the industry to do.

Most over the last 5 years say they have at best broken even, or at worst lost money in 4/5 of the last years. They do not request huge price increases, 5 to 10% will mean they are able to make a reasonable return. If things carry on the way they are, in five years time we will not have a vegetable growing industry in the UK. It will have been exported! There is little new investment, or new entrants coming into the businesses and when the current owners have had enough, they will retire and following generations will do something easier. This is true across all sectors if you are organic or non organic.

Retailers must be made to see how their actions are dishonest to their customers, deceiving them, by claiming to solve a problem they create, in the case of wonky carrots, potatoes and onions they currently sell, whilst still maintaining artificial specifications for other crops, such as cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, bananas and many other imported and home produced crops. I was at a large cucumber packer recently and the pack house manager said to me 50% of the cucumbers they out grade during the imported season are suitable to be eaten and sold, but are just slightly bent, or not quite the right weight. For them this can equate to several 20 cubic meter skips going to landfill every week. (being wrapped when delivered to pack house they can’t be reused as stock feed). This is the real obscenity the retailers do not wish you to see or know about.

As customers we all have the choice what we buy, however we must have an educated choice and that education has to come from places we trust. With retailers we expect the information we receive to be trustworthy, but with wonky vegetables retailers are letting us down, letting themselves down and ultimately letting their shareholders down.

More Information

You can find out more on Mark’s blog Systems 4 Food