A "WAR ON WASTE" hashtag might trend well on social media but customers are increasingly expecting their fresh produce to look perfect.
An American fruit and vegetable industry analyst has warned Australian growers of consumers' rising expectations for unblemished fruit, ethically-produced fruit and vegetables.
Rabobank senior fruit and vegetable analyst, Dr Roland Fumasi, toured key horticulture production areas in Australia last week while also speaking with growers and industry representatives about global trends.
The California-based analyst said the list of qualities buyers were looking for in fresh produce continued to grow and had changed markedly in recent years.
“Consumers now expect the quality of their fruit and veg to be 100 per cent perfect, 100 per cent of the time,” Dr Fumasi said.
“They expect it to taste amazing, look good and to be extremely convenient and they want this all year-round. And that is just the starting point.”
Establishing customer loyalty required growers to appeal to inner values, according to Dr Fumasi.
“When you look at the buying habits of the middle-class consumer, not only do they now want a high-quality product – they are also looking for staunch food safety, transparency regarding production, sustainable farm practices that leave a lighter footprint on the environment and assurance that farmers are looking after their employees," he said.
“And while these consumer demands are increasing, farmers are now also producing their fruits and vegetables in a more complex environment than ever before, with rising labour costs, water issues, changing environmental policies and government red tape.”
The insight comes in the face of a seeming heightened public consciousness over excess waste, including mishappen fruit that is dumped because it does not meet retailer specifications.
In 2014, Woolworths introduced its "Odd Bunch" range, selling misshapen fruits and vegetables at a reduced rate.
A Woolworths spokesperson said the agriculture supply chain and customers have responded positively to the campaign.
"As of May this year, more than 65 million kilograms of The Odd Bunch fruit and vegetables have been sold in our stores," the spokesperson said.
"Carrots have proved to be the most popular Odd Bunch picks with shoppers, with approximately 16 million kilograms sold since launch, followed closely by potatoes, apples, pears and avocados.
"Woolworths is the first and only supermarket in Australia to launch such an initiative on a national scale.
"As of July this year, the range includes more than 21 products directly sourced from Australia."
The campaign incorporated messages from celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, to encourage shoppers to make the most of discounted produce.
Food wastage was thrust to the fore recently with a three-part ABC series, War on Waste. The first episode showed a north Queensland banana farm forced to discard more than 30 million of the 80 million bananas grown each year due to supermarket requirements.
While acknowledging the challenge of delivering “perfect” produce, Dr Fumasi insisted there was a lot of opportunity to be had for farmers intent on meeting these demands.
“While this trend for high-quality, ethically-produced food is most evident in developed markets, it is also increasingly being seen in developing markets,” he said
“Along with the rise in the global population we are also seeing a massive increase in the world’s middle class, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Within the next 10 years or so, it is predicted that 66 per cent of the world’s middle-class population will live in the Asia-Pacific and it is in this group of people where we see the biggest growth in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption.”
When it came to exports, a rising middleclass in Asia is likely to adopt similar tastes and requirements to their western counterparts.
“When you look at developing Asia, we are seeing the market catch up at an incredible rate, so it is only a matter of time until there is a major sector of this market that has the same demands as local Australian markets,” he said.
“Australia has an excellent reputation for producing safe, delicious, attractive produce and that brand equity is a good platform to build a conversation with customers,” he said.
“Being able to be as open and transparent as possible with an audience and giving them an insight to exactly who you are and what you do, will not only gain loyalty for your brand but is likely to reflect positively on the industry as a whole.
“Today’s consumer has an extensive list of demands from producers and the technology to find the information they want at their fingertips, so it is important that the Australian fruit and vegetable industry is proactive in engaging this consumer and telling its story, before someone else does.”