In Europe, the ugly ducklings of the produce aisle are increasingly admired for their inner swans.
Call it the return of unsightly fruit.
Retailers (at least in Europe and the U.S.) by default now cater to the perfectionist shopper who prefers only the plump, round tomato or the unblemished apple to grace the fruit bowl. But many fruits and vegetables, while edible and nutritious, don't measure up.
That means farmers end up tossing out a huge amount of food that fails to meet retailers' cosmetic standards – in some cases, as much as 20 to 40 percent of fresh produce gets wasted, according to estimates from the United Nations Environment Program.
But the European Union declared 2014 to be the Year Against Food Waste. And earlier this year, French retailer Intermarche, the country's third-largest supermarket, took that initiative viral, launching a cheeky "inglorious fruits and vegetables" campaign to get consumers to see the beauty of ugly produce.
As this video shows, the Intermarche campaign made hideous fruits and veggies the star of the show. In TV commercials and print ads, the supermarket promoted absurd-looking produce like "the grotesque apple," "the failed lemon," "the disfigured eggplant," "the ugly carrot" and the "unfortunate clementine."
The campaign was a temporary experiment in a store in Provins, outside of Paris. Intermarche bought up the lumpy and bumpy stuff that would have gotten discarded and gave it its own aisle in the supermarket, selling it at a 30 percent discount. And to convince shoppers that looks may have suffered, but taste did not, the retailer also sold soups and shakes made with them
That initial campaign, launched in March, was quite successful: Marcel, the creative agency behind Intermarche's campaign, says overall store traffic rose 24 percent. It was so successful, in fact, that Intermarche brought the idea back for a week in October in all of its 1,800 stores, and its competitors in France, Auchan and Monoprix, have launched similar initiatives.
And ugly fruit fever is spreading.
In Portugal, The New York Times reports, a food cooperative called Fruta Feia (Ugly Fruit) buys up produce too gnarly for supermarkets and sells it to customers attracted both to its lower prices and its food waste prevention mission. Farmers like the scheme, too — they get extra income instead of adding the ugly ones to the rubbish pile.
In the U.K., "a growing number of supermarkets are preparing to follow the French lead and stock produce that isn't as aesthetically pleasing," market intelligence firm Companies and Markets wrote in a research note.
This summer, Waitrose, a sort of U.K. version of Whole Foods, stocked apples prominently branded as "weather blemished" – the result of extensive damage from hail at its South African farm suppliers. In previous years the retailer has sold imperfect eggplants, carrots and plums.
Other supermarkets are finding different uses for the produce, says Shazia Ejaz of the British Retail Consortium, an industry group.
"The key is to make the most of the crop, which all supermarkets are doing," she tells NPR in an email. "This could be using the best of the crop for bagged or loose produce, but [also] looking for alternative uses for those that don't make the grade — i.e. pre-prepared produce (a growing trend), ready meals and soups."
So what's driving the interest? The European Union relaxed strict rules governing the sale of imperfect fruit in 2009. But Tristram Stuart, a food waste activist with the group Feeding the 5000, says growing consumer awareness was also crucial.
"Supermarkets will cater to what public demand requires," he says. And, he notes, "there are not a lot of environmental measures out there that are going to save you money, but stopping wasting food is one of them."
And consumers will scoop up these tasty uglies when they know the story behind their unfortunate looks, says Waitrose spokesperson Jess Hughes.
"We always find these products are popular with customers — they always sell well," Hughes tells NPR via email.
For now, there appear to be limits to just how much imperfection retailers will take.
"The experience of retailers in the U.K. is that customers naturally select, they always pick the cream of the crop," Ejaz says.
And even Intermarche has said its promotion of inglorious produce can only be occasional, as problems with suppliers occur.
Nonetheless, the fever is also making the leap across the pond: In Canada, Safeway is experimenting with "misfit produce" displays. And your local U.S. farmers market might just have "seconds" of peaches, tomatoes or apples for sale. Stay tuned: Plenty of activists stateside are hoping to bring ugly fruit to a supermarket or CSA near you soon.