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The Growing Appeal Of "Ugly Food"

There was a time not long ago when imperfect produce was discarded for its aesthetic shortcomings. But now concerns about food waste are giving some not-so-pretty products a new lease on life.

Les Gueules Cassées products in French supermarkets
Les Gueules Cassées products in French supermarkets
Laurence Girard

PARIS — They are misshapen, spotty in some cases, or otherwise flawed. In a word, they're ugly. And yet they're increasingly appealing, so much so that some supermarkets now feature these unsightly products prominently.

Fruits and vegetables were the first to flaunt their atypical look. Out-of-shape apples standing alongside twisted carrots. Biscuits, camemberts and sausages followed suit, earning the produits moches (ugly products) or gueules cassées (broken faces) labels.

The new movement, instigated by retailers, owes much to the growing awareness among consumers of food waste issues. In this debate, fingers are often pointed at big supermarket chains, which have refused to give precise numbers about how much is thrown away. They, in turn, complain about the tyranny of the sell-by date.

Others blame what they say is a "zero defects" policy on the distribution side of the equation. Draconian specifications drive farmers to change the shape of fruits and vegetables to get a specific size and flawless appearance — even if it means sacrificing taste.

France's Parliament stepped into the fray with a bill to better regulate practices. The legislation looks to outlaw the disposal of food that is still fit for human consumption. Instead, retailers will have to give it away. The measure was voted unanimously by the National Assembly, the lower house, in December 2015 and is currently under review in the Senate.

Experiments with "ugly products" date back a few years. In 2014, supermarket chain Intermarché, in collaboration with the Marcel advertising agency, tested displays of imperfect (but perfectly tasty) fruits and vegetables. The concept and the marketing campaign that went along with it proved to be "an immediate success with the public and journalists," says Blandine Mercier, an associate director with Marcel.

Nicolas Chabanne, a former communications manager, also questioned the fate of fruits and vegetables that are culled because of the way they look. First he decided "to give fruit a human face" as part of a campaign involving small-scale producers in the area around Avignon, in the south of France. The idea was to use images of the farmers on the labels they attached to their products. Later, he started his own venture and, working hand-in-hand with farmers, started the "gueules cassées" collective.

The initiative, with its misshapen-apple logo, was a hit with supermarket chains keen to compete with Intermarché. "The logo can be found at Leclerc, Monoprix, Franprix and Carrefour, Spar and Vival," says Chabanne.

The entrepreneur's business structure is quite particular. The products are sold at a discount in shops, and portions of the revenue earned go to charities and consumer groups. The brand also adapts itself to interests of the retailer. Carrefour, for example, decided to display it through the French national anti-waste campaign under the banner "Tous antigaspi" (everyone against waste).

"Last year, 10,000 tons of fruits and vegetables were valued in that way. Our goal is to reach 1 million tons of food products," says Chabanne, who is eager to export his strategy. He claims to have the support of BNP Paribas and the U.S. investment group GEM, which are ready to invest 6 million euros in the project. The idea is to next introduce the model to the U.S., Brazil, Italy and Germany.

What remains now is to convince farmers and industries to play along. That's not to say that producers, as it stands now, throw away all but their best food. Christian Jouffret, who heads a 50-million euro produce company, says fruits that don't belong to "Category 1" are sold to puree and jams producers. Similarly, Emilie Fléchard of the Gillot cheese factory, says that "non-compliant cheeses" are sold to retailers, sauce producers or given to food banks.

The arrival of ugly products on supermarket shelves won't single handedly solve the food-waste problem. But perhaps it will raise awareness among consumers, who might want to apply the same lessons at home. Each French household, after all, throws out 20 to 30 kilograms of food per year.

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