Can ‘wonky veg’ unite consumers and supermarkets in the food waste battle?

With UK supermarkets struggling to meet impending food waste targets, a new questionnaire reveals that retailers believe consumers are more than willing to turn to wonky veg as a sustainable solution that would be a "clear benefit to all".

Whilst supermarkets have been making efforts to reduce food waste, new initiatives set by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) alongside ambitious new targets established under the Courtauld Commitment have intensified the need for supermarkets to turn to innovative measures to solve current issues and meet waste reduction goals.

The next phase of WRAP’s flagship Courtauld Commitment would see UK supermarkets and food and drink firms pledge to reduce waste by a fifth by 2025, in an effort to recoup the estimated £20bn that is lost on food waste each year.

In order to combat rising food waste issues, supermarkets have been subjected to public campaigns and demonstrations aimed at pressuring the stores to increase their waste reduction efforts. The media spotlight soon fell on the issue as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s War on Waste series began targeting supermarkets that were ignoring certain perishable produce due to ‘imperfect’ aesthetics.

The aftermath of this exposure has seen a number of stores such as Asda and Tesco introduce ‘wonky veg’ lines into UK stores. These are fruit and vegetable lines that do not meet strict aesthetic standards of supermarket produce but are still perfectly edible.

But while food re-distribution programmes from supermarkets that offer up free meals from surplus food stock have proved popular, questions remain about how the consumer will interact with these new wonky veg campaigns.

Wonky willingness

However, recent survey results from retail prediction specialists Blue Yonder have revealed that the majority of retail managers believe that customers will be fully on board with buying wonky veg at a discount.

The survey of more than 150 supermarket managers across the UK, revealed that senior UK supermarket managers were the most convinced that customers would buy wonky veg lines at a discount.

The results show 43% of junior managers, 55% of middle managers, 57% of senior managers and 77% of company directors replied with “Yes definitely” as to whether consumers would be on-board with the wonky veg initiative. These results were from 152 UK supermarket managers at varying senior positions throughout the UK.

Blue Yonder’s retail industry director Matt Hopkins said: “In a struggle to remain competitive, grocers find themselves throwing away an increasing quantity of goods on a daily basis. This issue has intensified as customers have become accustomed to having not only a wide variety of choice, but also the freshest selection available.

“This research reveals 90% of grocery managers feel customers would be happy with discounts on imperfect fruit and vegetables.  This has the benefit of overcoming the waste problem in the supply chain, and is clearly of benefit to all.”

Outside of the UK, there is further support for the concept, with 91% of 300 managers in the US saying that consumers would “definitely” or “possibly” buy wonky veg lines and 94% of German managers believing that the lines would be successful – with not a single member the 150 German managers believing consumers would reject the idea.

Consumer contribution

Some small success has already been seen from early wonky veg initiatives. According to Blue Yonder, one supermarket reported that by introducing a wonky veg line, they have saved 34,000 tonnes of potatoes that otherwise would have been thrown out due to not meeting size, shape or colour regulations.

While UK supermarkets have already reported 20,000 tonnes of food waste savings in 2015 through a variety of different methods as reported by the BRC, there is yet to be a sector-wide outlook as to the success of the ‘wonky veg’ initiative.

But, a separate food waste initiative from Asda has revealed that not only are consumers willing to support food-waste prevention movements, but it could also save the consumer money.

With households being the largest generator food waste in the UK, wasting 7m tonnes per year, Asda showed a cost benefit to consumers who reportedly followed a variety of in-store and online guides to reduce food waste and save £57 per household each year.

Research from the University of Leeds highlighted that 81% of customers planned to follow advice from Asda on food storage, labelling, and leftovers recipe inspiration, while two million customers are making changes in the homes as a result of the campaign.

If supermarkets continue to promote innovative measures such as the wonky veg ranges, the media storm could soon subside, and supermarkets can really begin to look beyond suppliers and in-house operations to truly drive-down food waste for consumers too.

Alex Baldwin & Matt Mace

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