Rebecca Shumway ©2017

The Tale of a Tomato and Food Waste

Feature

A review of current regulations and consumer attitudes in the US contributing to food waste.

When did you last purchase a tomato? Your fruit passed through many hands before reaching the safety of your shopping basket. It parted ways with many tomatoes that did not make the “grade.”

According to 2014 USDA reports, those rejects joined over 133 billion pounds of annual U.S. food waste. The perishable-foods industry is actively searching for improved, efficient methods to prevent this loss of profit.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s 2012 report, “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” presents another poignant angle: “Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.”

Your tomato beat incredible odds to enter your basket. Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity, estimates that over 6 billion pounds of fresh produce are unharvested or unsold yearly.

Beautiful tomatoes make it home. The rest endure a worse fate.

Where does the waste begin? Workers only pick unripened tomatoes, leaving those that ripened early to spoil in the fields. Many more tomatoes do not make the final cut as packers closely inspect tomatoes, discarding those that do not meet strict USDA-regulation guidelines.

The USDA has three grades of tomatoes, ranked by amount of defects, even coloring and size consistency. Most supermarkets carry a combination of grades U.S. No. 1 and No. 2. The USDA’s stringent inspection criteria for tomatoes span 84 pages, with meticulous descriptions of tomato-specific afflictions.

“Catfaces” are “misshapen or puckered blossom ends,” resulting in scarring but no taste difference. Some tomatoes have “zipper scars,” or thin lines running from stem to blossom end. Deft packers instantaneously discern between a “bacterial speck” and a “bacterial spot.”

No mention is made if a tomato with these imperfections ruins your garden salad. Yet, it only takes one of over 42 possible defects to disqualify your tomato.

Food safety certifications are another hurdle for tomato growers, packers and distributors. All major grocers require third-party food safety audits at every stage of the supply chain. During inspection, every surface or object your tomato could encounter is painstakingly examined. Even a minor violation such as a missing trash compacter latch can result in discarded produce and facility shutdown until repaired.

From the packer, your tomato is sold off to a wholesaler, who in turn distributes to a supermarket warehouse. Its journey ends at the market, though it still endures scrutiny. Produce clerks pluck out any unsightly tomatoes. Customers skip over inferior specimens. A safety recall, whether cosmetic or health risk, results in more disposed tomatoes.

Charles Caves, a produce manager at Publix Supermarkets, stated all tomatoes at this grocery chain can be tracked down to the GPS location of the original plant’s farm plot for true “field-to-fork traceability.” This ensures precisely targeted product recall batches.

Several up-and-coming startups are capitalizing on the cast-offs. Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest offer monthly subscription plans for doorstep delivery of “ugly fruit.” Last year, the French supermarket, Intermarche, launched a popular campaign championing the “inglorious fruits and vegetables.”

Other innovations include “smart labels” with color-changing sensors indicating if a package is maintained at proper temperatures or nearing expiration.

In the end, the decision for increased sustainability in the produce industry lies with the everyday shopper. A collective shift in consumer behavior necessitates awareness that the process of ensuring “perfect” produce has devastating, long-term consequences.

Consider this during your next perusal of the produce department: should we continue our search for the flawless tomato, or modify our tomato philosophy to accommodate the “catfaced” tomato?

This article was featured on the home page of Medium.com. Written while enrolled in Writing Strategies in the creative advertising program in the School of Communications + Journalism at Florida International University.