Growers struggle while shoppers pick perfection

DEMAND for perfect produce is resulting in enormous waste in the tomato industry, a University of the Sunshine Coast study has found.

Researchers followed two supply chains from Bundaberg, one of Australia's largest tomato growing regions, supplying markets in the Rum City and Brisbane.

USC environmental science student Tara McKenzie found up to 87% of undamaged, edible harvested tomatoes were rejected based on cosmetic appearance.

Between 70% and 84% of produced tomatoes were left in the field, and only about 45% to 60% of the total harvestable crop reached consumers.

The study was done during a period of tomato oversupply.

Study supervisor Professor Steven Underhill said Ms McKenzie's findings, published in the international journal Horticulturae, should be of deep concern.

"These finding shows that sometimes it's not even worth picking the crop,” Prof Underhill said.

"While horticultural food loss is a well-publicised problem, Ms McKenzie's research is one of the first to put some real numbers around the problem in Queensland.”

Ms McKenzie measured overall post-harvest losses from the field to domestic markets in Brisbane and Bundaberg to determine the impact of harvesting, sorting and handling practices, transport, storage and supermarket specifications.

She also interviewed industry specialists and people working in the supply chains.

"At every link, from harvesting and sorting to the market floor, edible tomatoes that were slightly odd-shaped or marked, or too small or too large were rejected because they didn't meet market standards for only premium, unblemished product,” Ms McKenzie said.

"The ability of supermarkets to impose their own specifications and reject product by the pallet, based on a single blemish, gives them considerable power over primary suppliers and wholesalers.”

She said one industry officer likened the specifications to expecting fruit and vegetables to conform "like a pack of Arnott's biscuits”.

The highest losses occurred in the field and packing sheds, where mechanisation and automated grading and sorting allowed commercial farms to stringently adhere to private food policy and standards.

"The level of food waste is heart-breaking and what is worse is the acceptance of this waste in our commercial food supply chains, with farmers being powerless to change it,” Ms McKenzie said.

The commercial grower involved in the research project stopped growing tomatoes shortly after it was completed.

Ms McKenzie, who was awarded first class honours for her thesis, said the results suggested future strategies to reduce food waste needed to be directed at the retail and consumer stages of the food supply chain that have a huge impact on the level of losses experienced by the primary producers.

"By showcasing only cosmetically perfect product, supermarkets are reinforcing unrealistic consumer expectations of how fruits and vegetables should appear.”

A Coles spokesman told the ABC said produce that did not meet standards was often sold to processors for value adding.

"Our sun-dried tomato supplier sources tomatoes from Queensland growers in Bowen and Bundaberg.”

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