Reducing food waste: Getting Singaporeans to embrace 'ugly food'

Liyana Othman Channel NewsAsia 24 Oct 16;

SINGAPORE: More than 790,000 tonnes of food waste was generated in Singapore last year – almost the equivalent of throwing away two bowls of rice every day.

There are no official figures on the breakdown of food waste in Singapore, and also how throwing away blemished or oddly-shaped food may contribute to the problem. But studies have shown that globally, 46 per cent of fruits and vegetables never make it from farm to fork.

LIVING IN AN ‘INSTAGRAM WORLD’

It seems that people in Singapore are not too keen on ugly food either.

In a survey involving 1,000 people, household appliance company Electrolux found that 83 per cent of Singaporeans would only buy fruit and vegetables that look fresh and good. It also revealed that a quarter of them will never eat “ugly food”.

“Ugly food is aesthetically not appealing, and there’s always a psychological barrier that when people spend money, they would want the most perfect-looking ingredient. We live in an Instagram world now, where everything has to look perfect,” said Electrolux’s in-house chef Eric Low.

"When it doesn't look perfect, the mindset is that, that means it doesn’t taste good, which is a very wrong perception”, he added.

To test this, Channel NewsAsia visited supermarkets to ask consumers to pick between two tomatoes – one that was red and smooth, and another that was blotchy and blemished.

Needless to say, the former came up tops.

But is a perfect-looking fruit or vegetable really tastier or healthier?

That is a “huge myth”, said nutritionist Sheeba Majmudar.

“You’ll find that most of the time, organic produce is slightly misshaped – for example, cauliflowers and tomatoes that are discoloured. But actually, almost always, the nutritional value is the same. They are also equally sweet and juicy,” Ms Sheeba said.

UGLY FOOD IS STILL FOOD

So besides the fact that “ugly food” is just as good for us, why should people start choosing them?

Zero Waste SG is a not-for-profit organisation aiming to help Singapore eliminate the concept of waste. Its Executive Director Eugene Tay said choosing ugly ingredients will go towards the overall reduction of food waste.

“For a long time, cosmetic filtering of ugly food is a problem. Ugly food is still food, and a lot of resources go into growing the food. If we throw it away just because it doesn’t look nice, then I think we are wasting these resources,” Mr Tay said.

Food waste also makes up 7 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, which is a major cause of global warming.

To solve this problem, NTU’s sociology professor Md Saidul Islam said it will require the commitment of retailers and manufacturers.

"Business is basically done on the basis of quality and abundance. So let's say a supermarket doesn't have a few elements or commodities in abundance. Then the consumer definitely won’t come to the same store again. They also want to provide quality food. If there are any scars on the food, consumers don't want to buy them”, said Associate Professor Saidul.

To get a feel of the situation on the ground, we visited Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, where produce from neighbouring countries and all around the world arrive every day to supply Singapore’s markets and restaurants with the freshest ingredients.

But a quick walk around the market showed that retailers mainly carried perfect-looking vegetables and fruit. Bruised or misshapen ingredients were a rare sight.

Retailers said one of the reasons they were thrown away was because they did not look fresh or green enough for their customers.

This is why experts say tackling the problem of food waste should also include consumers.

"Consumers demand nice looking food, so retailers have to accept that,” said Mr Tay. “So they only sell nice-looking food to consumers. Embracing ugly food and reducing food waste starts with consumers who are willing to accept that food that looks ugly is still edible if you turn it into a nice dish."

Some companies are already trying out new ways to get their customers to buy ugly food. One of them is supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice, which has put up signs to discourage customers from handling fruit and vegetables too aggressively. It also trims and repackages ugly produce and sells them at a cheaper price.

For example, a bag of blemished fruit goes for a discounted price of S$2. As a result, FairPrice said it saved 250,000 kilogrammes of fruit and vegetables in just a year.

This is part of a food waste framework that the supermarket launched last year. It has helped to cut total wastage by nearly 40 per cent, from about 2.2 million kilogrammes in 2014 to 1.3 million kilogrammes in 2015.

NTUC FairPrice CEO Mr Seah Kian Peng said he hopes this will get its customers to start embracing ugly food.

"I hope we can accept some fruits and vegetables that have some blemishes and bruises, we can buy them as it is. Obviously the prices should be different. But over time I hope consumers in Singapore will be able to embrace and adopt this kind of consumption,” said Mr Seah.

FairPrice is also making sure that each outlet orders just enough to meet demand.

NON-PERISHABLES GET CANNED, TOO

But it is not just fruit and vegetables that get thrown out – canned food, too, are a major contributor of food waste in supermarkets. FairPrice donates those that are slightly dented or are nearing expiry dates to Food from the Heart, which gives them out to the needy.

Mr Anson Quek, who runs the charity, said this reduces food waste, and also helps those who genuinely need food.

"When we first started, we recognised that there are needy families who need food and are eating just one meal a day. But on the other hand, there are organisations and individuals who are throwing away good but unconsumed food. So we thought, it’s a waste, it’s environmentally unfriendly as well”, said Mr Quek. “That’s why we started Food from the Heart,” he added.

The charity, which was set up in 2003, now has many companies and organisations on board, including food manufacturers and bakeries with excess stock. It has just installed a cold room, so it hopes to receive more donations of fresh food, such as meat, dairy products, or ugly fruit and vegetables.

But Mr Tay from Zero Waste SG said the Government, too, should play its part. He suggested that Singapore should enact legislation similar to the United States’ Good Samaritan Act. Under the Act, when a company donates edible food to charities, they are not liable for anything that happens to those who consume that food.

“The Government can come in to introduce some form of Good Samaritan legislation and give companies assurance that if they donate food, they are not liable for it, or look into giving those who donate food some incentives or tax rebates,” Mr Tay said.

He also believes that it should be made mandatory for companies to declare the amount of waste they produce.

- CNA/dl

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