Beauty is in the eye of the USDA

Magazines have been known to Photoshop individuals nearly beyond recognition in order to achieve a sense of perfection and beauty. The images in the magazines and print ads depict a person in their peak physical shape with not a blemish in sight. This is a uniquely human trait—or is it?

Fruit and vegetables can be subjected to strict beauty standards living up to the image of what the perfect vegetable ought to look like. When it comes to the supermarket shelves, beauty is one of the most important attributes of a product.

“The only thing a customer can know about a piece of produce bought from a supermarket is what they can see,” Leonard Pallara, a farming consultant with Organic Sage Consulting, said in a recent article in Bon Appétit. “If they’re really being thoughtful, they may smell it—but most supermarket produce has been refrigerated, which kills the aroma. So the single greatest determinant factor that a person has for picking a piece is appearance.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has guidelines for what is considered suitable for public viewing. First, produce is sorted by commodity (what the product is: broccoli, apples, peas) and what the product will be used for (freezing, canning or otherwise).

Depending on what the product is used for, it can go under another layer of scrutiny. Some products have photos and descriptions demonstrating what is and isn’t acceptable. Cabbage, for instance, is graded on its color, firmness, freshness and damage, among other things. Apples are inspected for defects, size, temperature and other items. (To see how other fruits and vegetables are graded and rated by the USDA, click here.)

The trek a product takes from the farm to grocery store shelved begins at harvest time; most supermarkets require products that are uniform in size, so many farmers don’t bother to harvest those products that are too large or small.

This—according to Dana Gunders, a scientist with the National Resources Defense Council—is not necessarily a bad scenario, should farmers leave some crops behind. “This way, the nutrients from the plants are going back into the field—not into a landfill. This phenomenon—the difference between harvested produce and the amount made available to the public for consumption—is commonly known as pre-harvest crop shrink,” Gunders said.

Should the product make it from the fields to inspection time, that doesn’t mean all products will be put on supermarket shelves. The products that are not selected (typically) go straight to landfills.

“In major agricultural areas, landfills are brimming with produce,” Gunders said. “Often, the quickest and easiest thing to do [when trying to get rid of a product] is just to send it to a landfill.”

The buck doesn’t stop there. Some are trying to change this conventional method of picking the crème of the crop and tossing away the rest.

Former president of Trader Joe’s, Doug Rauch, is aiming to open a market in Massachusetts dedicated to this type of produce. The store, called the Daily Table, would sell packaged food passed its “sell-by” date, but still edible (many foods, Bon Appétit reports, have a generous margin and are still good approximately 10 days after their sell-by date before they truly expire). The Daily Table would also sell produce that didn’t pass USDA inspection but is still “nutritionally sound.”

To Rauch, sourcing fruits and vegetables from farmers is helpful to everyone in the economy. “We have to make sure we’re utilizing the food that we’re already growing,” he says. That means to look at nutrition and flavor, not the appearance. It is what is on the inside that counts.

Rauch compares buying produce to that of buying cars.

“There will always be new [cars] for sale, but there’s also a market for pre-owned vehicles—they might have a little ding or dent, or something that makes them less valued than a beautiful, new one …. Can you imagine if we could only buy new, perfect vehicles, and when people were done with them, they just shopped them off to the junk pile? That’d be a real loss, especially if the car still runs well. There’s got to be somebody who needs that car—somebody who would appreciate it.”

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