Asda says it has seen a “unprecedented” response to its ‘wonky veg’ boxes, selling more than 160 tonnes of misshapen fruit and vegetables since launching the waste-busting product in February.
The supermarket has revealed it has quadrupled sales for the £3.50 boxes since launching the scheme, which sell produce that had been considered too ‘ugly’ to put in shops and could have gone to into landfill or become animal feed.
Asda has so far sold 32,500 Wonky Veg boxes, The Huffington Post UK can reveal, the equivalent of 162.5 tonnes of produce.
Each cardboard box is filled with 5kg of foods like knobbly carrots, curvy cucumbers and blemished apples that it would normally refuse to buy from growers, with the aim of reducing food waste and increasing returns to farmers.
Up to 40% of fresh produce around the world is said to be rejected by supermarkets. Some of the vegetables in Asda’s boxes would have been used in soups, or as animal feed if the supermarket didn’t take them, but others could have gone to landfill, or been ploughed back into in the ground.
Asda started in February by releasing 2,500 of the boxes, which sold out within 36 hours. For the next month the supermarket doubled that to 5,000 boxes, and those sold out in 48 hours. From April, it is now committed to offering 10,000 boxes a month, meaning it should sell at least 500 tonnes of wonky varieties this year.
The supermarket is considering expanding wonky boxes even further – and Tesco followed suit with its own wonky veg range in March.
But launching the boxes was a major risk. “We were seriously 50/50 whether this was going to work or not. The room was split,” Asda’s Produce Quality Director Ian Harrison told HuffPost UK.
Some customers avoid buying food that looks different from usual, he explains. “There’s the rise of ready meals and things like that, there’s a slight disconnect with where people’s products come from.”
But thanks to TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall, many of us have started to judge things on how they taste, rather than how they look,
“You only have to look at the number of shows on television now like Food Unwrapped and Supermarket Secrets,” Harrison says. “There’s such a drive to understand where food is coming from suddenly, and I think the wonky thing has joined into this discussion.”
The response to Asda’s boxes has been overwhelmingly positive – fans regularly post what they’ve cooked with the boxes on social media.
A petition was even started in Scotland demanding that wonky boxes be launched there, as the first trial didn’t include stores north of the border.
It’s a great publicity move for a company which was forced to U-turn after a backlash over removing food bank donation points from its shops, and this week agreed to change its price promotions after being singled out by the competition watchdog.
The supermarket would not have put misshaped vegetables on sale several years ago because they would not have sold,Harrison claims: “All retailers are geared up to give customers what they want and that’s why the specifications are as they are, because customers were telling us they wanted everything to look perfect when they shopped.”
To reflect the move away from this mindset, Asda is relaxing it guidelines for fruit and veg including tomatoes, grapes, citrus fruits and white potatoes, to allow a more varied selection on its normal shelves. It has already sold 340 extra tonnes of carrots and 300 tonnes of sweet potatoes that would have never been on sale, and estimates at least 3,000 tonnes of previously overlooked produce will reach homes this year.
But even though views have shifted, Asda still doesn’t feel they could sell a curvy cucumber as regular produce. “Would customers pick it up?” Harrison asks doubtfully.
Many of the items in the boxes actually look normal – they just missed exacting supermarket standards by a tiny margin.
“They may be a couple of millimeters on a tomato or some small skin defects on a citrus. Customers wouldn’t even necessarily notice,” Harrison says
“What we’re talking about more is this idea of crop utlilisation, being able to use as much of what comes out of a ground as possible,” he says.
Supermarkets set additional specifications for their own shelves, based on what they think customers want.
But Harrison dismisses research saying that up to 40% of fresh produce is rejected by supermarkets, claiming it is that is a “false statistic”.
The wonky veg boxes have also resulted in a better deal for farmers. To fill the boxes each month, Asda phones its growers and asks what’s coming out of the ground that doesn’t meet its usual standards.
“They may say no, all the cucumbers are perfect. But the cabbage guys may say we’re had a lot of rain, it’s stripped some of the outer leaves out so they’re not as big as they are normally, do you want some wonky cabbages?
“It’s a bit of a pressure release valve, hopefully, for some of our growers. If things aren’t going as well as they hoped with the crop that they have, they can give us a call and we can use it in the box.”
Every grower aims to produce as much ‘perfect’ veg, called Class 1, as they can, and they do a good job – meaning that wonky veg is a tiny percentage of the overall crops. Less than 2% of a cucumber crop will be curvy, for example.
Given that Asda has 18 million customers a week, but is offering only 10,000 wonky veg boxes a month – the equivalent of 18 boxes, per shop, per month – could it not sell considerably more of them?
The supermarket is considering upping the number of boxes it creates, Harrison confirms, but, “We are slightly limited with how much wonky stuff is actually available,” he admits.