Cosmetic standards: Who’s really driving the quest for perfection?

The scale of food waste

Over the past year in particular the limelight has been shone on the scale of global food waste. On a local scale, the UK alone a tremendous 10 millions tonnes of food waste is produced every year. Globally, it is estimated that about 1.3 billion tonnes of food is finding itself wasted each year. To put that into context, that’s a third of the global food production each year, going to waste.

We do grow enough food to feed the population. So when the question of starvation and malnutrition comes up, where we should really be beginning is how do we stop, divert, or repurpose waste back into the chain to be eaten.  

Cosmetic Standards

There are many issues that contribute to scale of food waste, from storage after harvest, to consumers buying too much. Waste as a result of cosmetic standards is a topical one. That is, the selection and rejection of produce based on a series of visual requirements and visual requirements solely. 

There is a lot of confusion around where these requirements come from. But what you’ll find is that there is not just one sole culprit to pass the blame onto when we look at what drives cosmetic standards. It is a complex inter-playing of several drivers, it is the consumers, government, policy and the retailers.

Clarifying the EU Regulations

Through-out 2016 and at the height of the UK’s EU Referendum, one of the main bodies to receive the blame for cosmetic standards was the EU. Standards did come out regulation, but through many governing bodies that came together and agreed on these standards. Today however, regulation requirements have changed. The EU regulations fresh produce fall into two different groups, General Marketing Standards and Specific Marketing Standards.

The General Marketing Standards (GMS)

Introduced in 2009 and aims to be a revised and relaxed approach to marketing produce. Retailer are able to market produce s they fit so long as the product is:

  • intact
  • clean
  • sound
  • practically free from pests and damage
  • sufficiently developed
This means that from 2009, the sale of wonky veg has been legal. Prior to 2009 there were serious implications for not adhering to marketing standards.

The Specific Marketing Standards (SMS)

SMS is a stricter set of requirements that still applies to 10 specific products. Produce must fall into one of three classifications:

  • Extra Class: “Superior quality produce, that is uniformly regular in shape and appearance, only allowing some very slight superficial defects”
  • Class 1: “Good quality produce, allowing for minor defects such as areas of slight skin defects or slight shape defects”
  • Class 2: “Reasonably good quality produce, which may show one or more defects (depending on the product), such as slight bruising, damage or colour defects”

The SMS classification goes into specific detail about each of the products individually, with a set requirements that retailers must abide by. For instance, the minimum size for a Class 1 or 2 strawberry is 18mm, any lower and it does not meet the marketing requirements.

The OECD also has in-depth reading on this too. SMS applies to the following produce – apples, strawberries, kiwis, grapes, citrus, peaches and nectarines, pears, lettuce, sweet peppers and tomatoes

The retailers role

Even with regulations in place for some products, supermarkets are notorious for going above and beyond those standards. It’s been known that retailers also specify their own stricter requirements on top of those that have already been established. A study by the Friends of the Earth goes into great detail from growers across the country who shed light on the power retailer have had with specifications. Many growers outline the affect these specific standards have had to their businesses. Typical outcomes have been produce going to waste, not being harvested at all or being sold at a loss.

It could be argued however, that the reason supermarkets and retailers have these standards in place is due to customer demand. We shop with our eyes and when faced with a choice of 30 carrots, 5 of which are “unaesthetic appealing”, those are the ones that are often left in the pile. Many of us are probably unaware that we might be subconsciously shopping this way. But is this because of our lack of exposure to “imperfect” normal produce? We’ve been faced with perfection for so long, most of us probably weren’t even aware that carrots could come with legs.

Is enough being done?

Waste is a dire consequence but food waste is the most painful to see. The absurdity of starvation and malnutrition when food is being thrown away because it isn’t completely straight is a farce. For me, the answer is simple. Cosmetic appearance does not directly affect quality and supermarkets and retailers play a key role in solving this area of food waste. The rise of wonky veg is a good thing, it brings to light the fact that produce is a natural thing and that it grows as a product of the environment. Meaning, its subject to variation. Variation, unfortunately, is something many of us are not familiar with. How do we change that, how do we make what comes out of the ground as it is, desirable but also normal.

What are your thoughts?


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