PETER FROST attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff of the supermarkets’ self-congratulatory claims about commitment to stocking ‘wonky veg’
There is no doubt food waste is a real problem in Britain. Best estimates suggest that as a nation we waste more than 14 million tonnes of food every year.
This in a nation where Tory benefit cuts and austerity policies drive more than a million people to foodbanks.
One major contribution to this waste comes from our biggest supermarket chains and their demand that suppliers produce fruit and vegetables that look cosmetically perfect and identical in size and shape.
Public opinion as well as some high-profile television chefs have started to demand that this stops. Surprise, surprise the supermarkets have decided that rather than solve the problem it would be easier to confuse consumers with some smoke, mirrors and a bit of media manipulation.
The well-publicised Asda £3.50 wonky vegetable box (above) is one result. Why Asda? I wondered, and then I remembered the recent survey of the most and least ethical supermarkets in Britain. Guess who came bottom? Who else but Asda? The British arm of that giant Walmart — one of the most unethical companies in the US.
I took myself to my local Asda to buy a wonky veg box and there wasn’t one in sight. It must have sold out I thought. A helpful assistant laughed as she revealed the truth. Only 128 of the 550 Asda stores had the boxes and those only for a trial. Each of those 128 stores had been sent only a small quantity and staff had been advised to tell customers they did not know when and if there would be any more.
I might not have got my wonky veg, but Asda got its headlines and TV coverage. Job done.
In 2014 a Europe-wide inquiryestimated that 89 million tonnes of food are wasted across the EU annually.
As a result France made it illegal for supermarkets to send any food for waste. Britain did nothing, despite the fact that it creates more waste than any other country in the EU, dumping 14 million tonnes a year, or twice as much food per capita as the EU average.
Cameron’s Tory government, as usual decided to leave it to big business to regulate itself.
Supermarkets and the rest of the distribution network account for around a third of Britain’s total food waste.
When a few TV chefs like Jamie Oliver (below) raised the issue the supermarkets decided they needed at least to be seen to be doing something. The wonky veg movement was one result.
Asda got the most media coverage with its now famous box but other supermarkets certainly tried to hop aboard the bandwagon with some equally halfhearted attempts to look like they are doing something to reduce food waste.
Price cutter Aldi, for instance stated sells a variety of fruit and vegetables with different shapes and skin finishes.
Morrisons too says it sells a permanent range of wonky vegetables at discounted prices.
Sainsbury’s says it has a number of initiatives to put wonky veg to good use.
Tesco — under heavy attack at the moment for the way it has failed to pay suppliers — says that for years it has included a variety of produce of different shapes and sizes in its“everyday value” range. The Co-operative, named as Britain’s most ethical supermarket chain, told the Morning Star: “We do sell smaller or mis-shaped fruit and vegetables, including apples and potatoes in our stores.”
Once the campaign had started to pick up momentum, the supermarket spin doctors saw a way to make themselves look even more public spirited. These wonky veg, they decided, could feed the poor.
The Tory austerity propaganda machine wasn’t far behind. Bendy carrots and scabby potatoes could help the poor make the squeezed family budget go that bit further.
We had already had the advice of arch-Tory Lady Jenkin (below). “Poor people do not know how to cook,” she told a Church of England event. “I had a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p. A large bowl of sugary cereals will cost 25p,” she smugly crowed. Later, she’d be forced to apologise for her crass opinions.
The last time Britain really got its food waste under control was with rationing in the WWII although most people don’t realise just how class-based the entire rationing system was.
Game was never rationed so the rich folk could gorge on pheasant, grouse and venison. Salmon, then a real luxury, was even more blatant in that it was never rationed. Tinned salmon however, something working-class housewives saved up for as a special treat needed ration-book coupons.
When the wartime minister of food issued an austerity recipe for salmon head pie, Communist MP Willie Gallacher asked the question: “Who gets to eat the rest of the salmon?”
Perhaps today we need to ask: “Who gets to eat the vegetables that aren’t so wonky?”
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 18 February 2016.