Farmers hope a campaign by a major supermarket to promote blemished bananas from cyclone-hit regions will be a catalyst for a change in consumer and retailer expectations about what good produce looks like.
Woolworths has introduced in-store signs to encourage shoppers to buy fruit blemished by wild weather in Queensland where Tropical Cyclone Jasper left growers scrambling to salvage their crops late last year.
But farmers, whose produce is subject to strict standards for size and markings, say the initiative should be standard practice.
Boosting blemished bananas
North Queensland banana grower Kulvinder Singh said it would be nice if people understood how hard it was to farm, especially when Mother Nature was not always on side.
Ms Singh’s crop was damaged when severe weather caused by Tropical Cyclone Jasper tore through her paddocks in the Kennedy Valley, north of Townsville.
“One paddock in particular, that was a majority of fruit for the next few months, was 80 per cent gone and another paddock was affected by 20 to 30 per cent,” Ms Singh said.
Ms Singh said consumers would take notice of Woolworths’ new signage but the initiative should be applied to all produce to educate consumers on their role in the industry.
“Consumers are the ones that are buying it, so they need to understand a little bit of marks on the outside won’t affect what’s inside,” she said.
A widespread issue
Bowen horticulture grower David Richardson said he ended his contract with Coles due to unrealistic high standards for cosmetically appealing produce, saying the retailer was difficult to deal with.
“A certain variety of eggplant we grow has a lot of brown seeds and it’s a new variety,” he said.
“They cut so many open to test when they get a pallet and the seeds were brown, so they were saying that it was over mature, which it wasn’t.”
But Mr Richardson said farmers needed to band together to be part of the solution and tell retailers they wouldn’t continue to comply with their unrealistic standards.
Little leeway in supermarket standards
Mr Richardson said retailers expected produce to have no real blemishes and conform to a certain size.
“You can do up to three grades, premium grade, first grade and second grade, and they were really only interested in the premium grade, which is only about 10 per cent of what you grow,” he said.
Ms Singh said supermarkets would reject bananas if the skin was broken but there were some allowances for minor issues.
“You have to have a minimum of three bananas in a cluster, and it can range up to about eight, and no bigger than that,” she said.
South Queensland Banana Ripeners and Viva Produce general manager Adam Lahey said there was more leeway for quality at the Brisbane Markets compared with major retailers.
“People are more happy to work with you, whether it be price, or they might opt to go with either a bit better quality or a bit poorer quality,” Mr Lahey said.
Retailers defend standards
A Coles spokesperson told the ABC the retailer strived to meet customer expectations of quality produce and reducing food waste.
“A growing number of our customers recognise that great-tasting fruit and vegetables come in all shapes and sizes and are increasingly buying from our ‘I’m Perfect’ range,” the spokesperson said.
But Mr Davidson said while those initiatives were a great start, the amount of produce sold did not put a dent in the quantity wasted.
Woolworths general manager for fruit, Marie Gallagher, said the supermarket regularly spoke to its growers to discuss how best to support them during situations such as Tropical Cyclone Jasper.
“Whether that means accepting fruit that may have additional marks on the skin, or adjusting picking timelines to make sure the fruit is off the trees before a storm hits,” Ms Gallagher said.
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