Grocery shoppers are discerning folks. Every day, in every suburb, they stand before pallets of produce, feeling fruits and investigating vegetables, searching for the perfect specimen: ripe, unspoilt and preferably pretty.
And the supermarket giants are just as picky. Only fruit and vegetables that meet strict rules on quality – and aesthetics – are allowed to grace the shelves of Coles and Woolworths. The rest are just not pretty enough.
The percentage of rejected and discarded produce in this country could be as high as 40 per cent, says Jon Dee, managing director of DoSomething! which runs the FoodWise website. Anecdotal evidence from farmers and industry groups indicates that "20 to 40 per cent of fruit and vegetables are rejected before they reach the shops", he told Fairfax Media.
That is comparable to the 30 to 40 per cent of produce the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says is lost before market in the developing world, due to improper storage, processing or transportation.
This is before any produce actually makes it to the supermarket. From there, consumers in developed nations waste food at notorious rates. FoodWise estimates Australian households throw out $8 billion of edible food a year – a figure fact-checked by the ABC and found to stack up.
While those numbers have been tested against household surveys and bin audits, there is very little research on losses incurred at Australian farms, Mr Dee says. Early in 2010, the Queensland Government offered a glimpse into wastage from its banana crops, in a report that estimated nearly a third of total banana production was graded out of the packaging process.
"What I think most Australians don't understand is just how huge that level of waste is," Mr Dee says.
"The problem for the farmers is that we've set this unrealistically high bar for cosmetic standards. As a result of that, a lot of food gets rejected. But the food itself tastes just as good."
This wastage is also a problem for consumers and the environment, says Anna Lee, a PhD student at Stanford University. In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, she argues people are missing out on different flavours and textures because of what the supermarkets have deemed to be unacceptable. Russetted apples, for example – which have a rough, yellow-brownish skin – are a farmer favourite but essentially verboten from mainstream grocers.
"By insisting on perfect-looking produce, customers also cheat themselves of taste and variety," Ms Lee writes.
The supermarkets contend that customers have high expectations for quality based on appearance, and simply will not buy goods that look second-rate. Mr Dee says that assumption should be tested, with discounts on produce that looks different from the norm.
He also points out that wasted produce is a dead loss for farmers, many of whom are already struggling financially. Mr Dee argues governments should do more to help charities buy rejected produce at a lower price. Food recycling groups such as OzHarvest and SecondBite do this at present but on an "ad-hoc basis", he told Fairfax Media.
Ronni Kahn, chief executive of OzHarvest, says consumers need to be educated about wastage and the myths around food. Supermarkets should be encouraged to sell "ugly" fruits and vegetables and shoppers should be taught that they are fine to eat, she says.
Ms Kahn argues use-by-dates on food packaging is "overzealous and unnecessary" and should be replaced with the date the item was produced.
"My grandmother, your grandmother, ate [food] until she smelt it and it didn't taste good," she says. "We've lost confidence in our own taste buds. We've lost confidence in being able to understand what produce is still good to eat."
OzHarvest visits Select Fresh Providores up to four times a week to scout for offcuts and rejected produce. Select Fresh general manager Steven Biviano says about 10 per cent of their fruit and vegetables was deemed unsuitable by customers, typically on the basis of appearance. This week he donated two pallets of oranges that were rejected because "they weren't perfectly round".
Mr Biviano, who admits to wasting food in his own kitchen, says television cooking shows have added to the obsession with how food is presented – rather than its freshness or taste.
"Unfortunately we live in a world where Masterchef is very big – so everyone wants the perfect plate," he says. "If we can't sell those products to our customer, we want to give back to the community in some form."