Fruit and Vegetable quality

Twenty years ago we used to go past the fruit and vegetable growing farm of a relative in country Victoria. We would drop in and be rewarded with a load of whatever was being harvested at the time. I can remember watching cantaloupes on a big conveyor belt being sorted and packed. I wondered where those not selected went so I went out the back and discovered hundreds of cantaloupes lying on the ground. I was told that any fruit which had marks from sitting on the ground or that was slightly deformed in any way was discarded because the supermarkets didn’t want it. We took home a load of the discarded fruit which was in no way compromised by the small marks on the skin. It was great.

Fruit as I remember it was fresh. Apples were crisp, oranges were tight inside their skins. Today we get most of our fruit from the supermarket. Many apples show a loose skin and can be squeezed - indicating that they have been in storage a long time. Oranges are similar and many are sold in net bags so that the skin faults are not obvious. The most recent bag had several oranges going rotten within 5 days. What about pears? Most are misshapen and often have marks on the skins. I could go on about the changes in the fruit and vegetables we buy today. Much of it is obviously not freshly picked but has been stored. The shape of the fruit and vegetables is nowhere near the high quality of yesteryear.

What is happening to fruit and vegetables? Are we selling the good stuff overseas and consuming the second grade stuff ourselves? Are our farms being sold off so that the product is going straight overseas? What is happening to high quality fresh produce? It seems to be disappearing.

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Your experience of yesteryear having unblemished fruit and today’s product being blemished does not accord with mine. Much superficially imperfect fruit is still never brought to market. The fruit I see for sale does not have anything like the variation in size and shape of the produce I grow. Supermarkets sometimes have “second class” fruit eg ‘The Odd Bunch’ at reduced prices. While people buy on appearance instead of taste and the retailers can force producers to discard the less than perfect looking product it will remain that way.

As for fruit that has been in storage too long that is also a result of demand, and to a lesser extent duplicity. Collectively we demand apples all year round and politely ignore the fact that those grown here are harvested over a period of a few months only and most of that span is due to differences in cultivar and regional conditions. The retailer is not going to say “there are no more apples available as they are out of season, you will have to wait 6 months”.

They are less than forthright about the reality of that annual cycle. If pressed you might get a representative to say that fruit can be in storage for months but they will quickly add that they take great pains to ensure that it is sold in the best possible condition - which is largely true as it is in their interest to do so. What they will not admit is that at some times of the the year the best possible condition is horrid. Until buyers become more discriminating and leave out-of-season fruit to rot on the shelf this will not change either.

A parallel story at the production end of the process is that modern plant breeding has been turned to producing fruit that is larger, better looking and more durable, rather than more tasty. The aim is to satisfy the two goals I mentioned above, convenience (so it must survive long trips and handling) and appearance (size, uniformity and colour). In addition fruits are often picked under-ripe to allow them to travel better. Some like bananas and pears ripen to full flavour off the tree. Others like peaches do not.

The produce you grow yourself (and I include vegetables here as well) is often far superior in taste because we are willing and able to reverse all those trends. You can choose cultivars based on taste. You eat in season for the most part except for bottling. You eat at peak ripeness and freshness. A peach straight from a good tree eaten at perfect ripeness bears little resemblance to any from the market and will knock your socks off. Cabbage a day old is sweet! Asparagus cut an hour ago is to ‘fresh’ supermarket asparagus as ‘fresh’ is to canned.

The situation with supermarket produce duopoly is very much like the political party duopoly. We whinge and whine about how inferior they are but their product is almost the same and we keep buying it so we keep getting the same result. Both forms of voting will continue to give inferior outcomes while Australians prefer convenience over inconvenience and appearance over substance. Rotten fruit ought to be left on the shelf.

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Our first reaction is to usually blame the supermarkets, which I did until I decided to watch how people select fruit and vegetables at out local supermarket, fruit and vege shop and markets.

In was amazed that almost every one who was purchasing loose fruit or vegetables, picked up each piece and inspected it before deciding whether to add it to their basket/trolley/bag. Also, standing at a stand, I have picked up pieces of fruit discarded by a fellow shopper to see why it wasn’t selected. Some had blemishes but some had ‘not ripe looking colours’. I now have become very conscious of my own behaviour which is also a pick up, inspect and select process. My discarding is different as I don’t care if fruit has blemishes, I check to make sure the fruit or vegetable is not spoiled (bruised or damaged which would cause rapid spoiling).

While we blame the supermarkets, we need to blame ourselves first. Changing our own behaviour and accepting near perfect produce, rather than perfect produce, is the only way to change the current grading system and specifications used by supermarkets and many other fruit and vege outlets.

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A slightly different spin on the hiQ fruit business…

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Consider you are looking at loose produce that is $5/kg. There is a basket full on offer that ranges from perfect looking to withered, and ‘hard fresh’ to ‘soft older’. Which are you going to buy?

It is human nature (as well as reasonable) to pick the best on offer for the price not accept whatever, given the choice. What is the alternative? Packaging all fruit and veg in plastic (so you can see most of what is inside, and will still try to be selective) or paper bags (a real grab bag possibly leading to the feeling of being ripped off with an inferior mix).

About ‘accepting’? How do you change the marketplace to change that behaviour? or vice versa? and in the quality-value-satisfaction proposition how do you think it would go? As anecdotal evidence we have some produce shops that clearly have ‘not the prettiest’ with prices reflecting ‘the prettiest and freshest’. I tried them a few times in curiosity if it was comparatively fresher or better tasting and concluded neither seemed the case. Other than convenience and their smiling faces I have always wondered how they stay in business.

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Don’t know, but open to suggestions.

If one turns on the TV and watches a ‘cooking’ show, all the produce used looks perfect. Pick up marketing material or a magazine/book and they look equally perfect. I am yet to see near perfects in the media.

Maybe those unreality TV chefs could start using near perfects as it seems the masses follow everything they do.

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I find the amount of food waste we produce to be quite obscene. An eon ago before we had self-service the shopkeeper would select the fruit and veg and bag it for you. Mostly they shared around the good and the imperfect and were left with a small proportion that they gave away to charity or put into bins to be fed to stock such as pigs. Since none of those factors or options apply any more I have no sure idea how to fix the problem as few will voluntarily select the less than perfect. Maybe the ‘odd bunch’ idea can be extended.

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Agree. If one has their own vegetable garden/fruit trees or orchard, one will realise how much of the produce is not perfect. If this imperfect or near perfect fruit and vegetables are being wasted, the industry needs to look at itself closely.

There are options (value adding) for fruits and vegetables which are badly damaged and don’t meet any retail grading…but the industry seems to stick its head in the sand. A little investment and the industry could become very innovative.

I also agree that the ‘odd bunch’ concept is a great idea and was originally devised by a French supermarket:

Most other supermarkets/fruit and vege retailer could follow suit and also expand the current available range.

While we don’t buy majority of our fruit and vege at Woolworths, we make exception for the ‘odd bunch’ range as we try and support food waste in our household.

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Much of the perfect fruit production relies on as noted above very large production so the “imperfect” fruit is a by product of that “perfect” fruit production. Also of some large consideration is the amount of fertilisers, weed control agents, pest control agents, energy input, water and so on that it needs to produce this “perfect” fruit and how much of this input is then wasted when the “imperfect” is discarded. It adds so much to the final price we pay for that “perfect” look.

I always go for seconds if they are made available, I don’t care if they have odd sizes, shapes, exterior marks or blemishes as it does not affect the quality of the eating and in some cases proves a better eating experience as it is generally not a stored product and this means it tends to be the much fresher product.

If however I am required to pay top dollar for a “perfect” product I then require top product for my dollar. But in the realm of Strawberries and some other produce they look the part but the flavour as has been mentioned in previous posts, comes nowhere near an acceptable level. It’s a bit like buying cut Roses, they come in nearly all colours of the rainbow but if you smell one it most likely doesn’t smell like a Rose should. At least 1/2 the Rose experience is missing when it isn’t supplying that natural Rose perfume but people continue to buy the unfragranced Roses as they look the part, oh how our eyes deceive us.

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There is also evidence that fruit and vegetables which are subject to poorer/hostile growing conditions may in fact be more flavoursome. Plants produce XXXoids biochemicals which can impact on taste. Some of these are natural defence responses, say to insect attack or disease, and can intensity flavours.

My own anecdotal belief is that this may be why home grown fruit and vege tastes a lot more intense than bought ones. The other factor may be storage which causes a breakdown in these xxxoid compounds.

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Wow! Thankful I live in Australia!

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In my home country Russia fruit and veg are displayed in their original boxes with the name of of the grower and the date of harvesting.
Here the best you get is ‘Australian grown’ information. No info whether the produce was in cold storage, wax-sprayed, injected with chemicals to improve the appearance or prolong its shelf life and so on.
Law must be changed to make it imperative to display ALL information.

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I had enough so I’ve planted 30 odd fruit trees. I may to wait a year or to but fresh fruit will be as close as the tree!

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Is there anyone else out there that gets really annoyed when people pick up fruit continually and squeeze it before replacing it on the pile? Apart from the obvious health risks of this, it potentially bruises the fruit for the next person. I never do this. I certainly look carefully before choosing my piece of fruit and yes, occasionally I get caught.

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Yes i do also. One can tell if a fruit is ripe just from gently picking it up…no squeezing needed. A ripe fruit doesn’t feel hard on pickup like an unripe equivalent. Squeezing increases likelihood of bruising and early spoiling.

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I don’t think they are just talking about the squeezing but also the picking up of the fruit. I think they are concerned about the cross contamination that this might enable. This is why it is important to wash your fruit and vegetables before you use them to remove contaminants from the product.

But what they see happening in the shops is just the last step in a long processing process and handling of fruit and vegetables before purchase. Most outbreaks of disease occur because of the on farm processes or the final handling of the product before consumption, but contamination also occurs elsewhere it is just rarer.

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Agree fully. The risk from a shopper handling and contaminating fruit or vege is very low/negligible compared to other sources of contamination in the food production from farm to mouth.

Things like irrigation water (esp. relevant in leafy greens or produce is not peeled), animal contact on farms and the deposits they make (e.g bird droppings), soil residues from raindrop splashes or from root crops (soil contains a huge biota, including many pathogens), fertiliser used (esp. organic/biodymanic farming where manures are commonly used), pesticides used in farm production to maximise yields and ‘perfect produce’, harvesting plant and equipment which can contribute non-organic contaminants, hand grading which can cause cross contamination, storage (all those lovely creatures which tend to love some storage environments including of packed produce or the storage of packaging awating use - rats, mice, insects etc) and then sitting on display waiting for someone to pick up and purchase. Then once purchased there is again storage (insects, bacteria and fungi which can spoil produce), handling and then preparation (e.g. using hands or utensils which have touched fresh chicken and not cleaned properly) through to storage of prepared food (stored too long or at wrong temperatures). There are others as well but these are the most likely source of contamination on produce.

Unless personal hygiene is very poor, other shoppers handling produce is not an issue, and possibly more of a phobia in developed countries.

In developing countries risks are significantly higher and why it is often recommended to avoid eating uncook, fresh produce (unless it can be peeled) and why vaccinations are often recommended (e.g. cholera, thyroid, Hepatitis) to mitigate such risks.

The main reason for washing produce in Australia is to remove any surface contamination such as soil or animal deposits such that the level of residual contamination is at concentrations which won’t cause health impacts. It is worth noting that produce which is eaten fresh (e.g. salad and vege greens) often has a final wash in a weak chlorine based solution where the produce is supplied to the restaurant/fast food industry/prepacked retail bags) to further reduce risks on such products.

Usually washing for pesticide residues is not warranted in Australia providing the farmer has used the chemicals in accordance with the manufacturer’s directions and also withholding periods have been followed. Over chemical use is not longer an issue in Australia as most farmers use the minimum amount/number of treatments as the cost of such inputs is high (both chemical, machinery and labour).

Also most fruit and vegetables are washed during the grading process before leaving the farm gate. With esception of possibly with market gardeners supplying directly to farmer’s markets. Often such produce doesn’t go through the same farm grading/washing as that which goes to traditional retailers.

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For Australian produce mostly a very accurate viewpoint but so much now is imported and some Countries do not have the same standards we do nor is their produce sent here regularly tested for non conforming levels and types of contaminants.

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I’ve heard it suggested that in some parts of our wonderfully developed country it is a potential issue. That said, I live in one of those parts and haven’t taken any specific precautions other than avoiding anything blatantly obvious, though gastro-type bugs do (anecdotally) seem far more prevalent here. A less stringent standard of personal hygiene among some of the locals is something visitors here tend to notice :wink:

I did a chemical users workshop for small property owners in the Adelaide Hills many years ago - one of the things they covered was surface resident vs systemic chemicals/pesticides. Many things were grown within a 5 minute drive of where we lived, including apples, pears, strawberries, cherries, grapes, olives … all the good stuff. The guy running the course offhandedly mentioned we’d be wasting our time washing any of them in the expectation the pesticide was only on the surface. Sounded a little too much like a generalisation, but how would you know what any particular producer has used? Luckily it is all safe, the Government tells us that :wink:

All the apples that make it to the outback must be wonderfully ripe then :rofl: lovely and soft … with a touch of ‘flouryness’ and none of that nasty cracking crunch when you bite into it that can startle the cat. Seriously though, I get that apples are probably an exception - and possibly one of one a small group - I can’t think of anything else in the fruit department where being hard is good?

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Could be cold store apples, or apples which have been stored in and out of refrigeration. It would be nice to know when purchasing fruit and vege which items have been cold stored as one should also refrigerate when storing at home.

You must let us know what neck of the woods you are talking about…or maybe not as you may create a media frenzy :grin:!

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