What a waste, says re­search

Sup­pli­ers strug­gle to pick per­fect pro­duce

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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

❝food The level of waste is heart-break­ing. — Tara McKen­zie

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.”


PICKY SHOP­PERS: The farm the study was con­ducted on stopped grow­ing toma­toes shortly af­ter.


Tara McKen­zie.

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