Supermarkets trade in mediocrity and waste


I wish I knew who they were, these supermarket customers who ruin it for everyone. The ones who like to have the aisles rearranged once a fortnight so that they can get in a bit of exercise while hunting for the biscuits. The folk who prefer their avocados rock hard. The guys who, we are now told, refuse to eat a tomato if it is not 100 per cent perfectly spherical. Are they the "hard-working family" out of the Tory party's adverts? Because, like them, we keep hearing that they're the ones for whom policies are made, but I've never met them or anyone like them in my life.

This weekend I am particularly keen to talk to these people, because it's for them that half the world's food is thrown away, according to a new report. Not just into their own bins, because they were so keen to take advantage of a two-bags-of-satsumas-for-the-price-of-one offer that they forgot that they hardly ever eat satsumas, and that satsumas aren't very nice when they've been sitting in a fruit bowl since Christmas. No, it turns out that 30 per cent of vegetable crops in the UK are never even harvested because supermarket shoppers won't like the look of them. Really? How bad can a vegetable look? Surely a bag of potatoes would have to have grown shaped like the faces of the entire Tory cabinet for hard-working shoppers to refuse to buy them, if they were a little bit cheaper than the glamorous spuds down the aisle.

We're told that it's shoppers who are driving supermarkets' policy to let farmers go bankrupt and tons of food rot in the ground, and maybe that's true. In the same way that it's technically true that a portion of chocolate and hazelnut spread "contains two whole hazelnuts, some skimmed milk, and cocoa" (and considerably more sugar and palm oil …). But, as with the chocolate spread, there is more information: a law that seems to prevent us from eating nice food. The Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1964 says that any seeds sold must be registered with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which costs £1,000 plus £185 a year (for tomatoes) and means that all the fruits grown from the seeds must be "distinct, uniform and stable". That rules out whole varieties of tomatoes. Mainly, the really tasty ones.

The only people who can afford to register a variety are big growers who sell to supermarkets. And the only varieties they register are the kind that travel well, having thick skins, can sit for days under fluorescent lights, and look uniformly red and round. They don't breed them deliberately to taste of water; they're just not that interested in the taste. And that's how supermarkets get away with charging twice as much for tomatoes that actually have a bit of flavour.

What's frustrating is that the rest of Europe seems to sell tasty, ugly vegetables in all its supermarkets, and their shoppers love them. So do British tourists, when we try Spanish or Italian veg. So, is a secret army of tasteless-tomato lovers really responsible for wasted food and bland dinners? Or could it be that supermarkets, and Defra, are doing something wrong?

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