Equal Rights for Ugly Foods

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Mychele Daniau / AFP / Getty

E.U. nations are giving the green light for certain "wonky" fruits and vegetables to be sold in supermarkets as part of a drive to stop food waste

Europe became a better place for less-than-picture-perfect fruits and vegetables this month as the European Union scrapped rules banning oddly shaped produce from supermarket shelves. "This marks the new dawn for the curvy cucumber and the knobby carrot," said E.U. Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel. (See a brief history of competitive eating.)

For the past 20 years, strict E.U. regulations, spelled out over some 100 pages, had dictated the shape, size and appearance of 36 fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets, with strangely precise bans on such items as:

• Green asparagus that is not green for 80% or more of its length
• Cucumbers that bend by a curve of more than 10 mm per 10 cm
• Cauliflower less than 11 cm in diameter
• Forked carrots

The regulations have long caused outrage among foodies, farmers, retailers and eco-minded eaters who bemoaned how wasteful it was to throw out up to 20% of perfectly tasty produce simply because it wasn't up to snuff visually. (See 9 kid foods to avoid.)

In the U.S., the farm-to-table and local-food movements have encouraged consumers to embrace irregularly shaped produce. Last year they helped convince the Federal Trade Commission to ease restrictions on the sale of a coveted hybrid heirloom tomato called the UglyRipe. "Fruits and vegetables can be ugly on the outside but still taste fine on the inside, where it counts," says chef Amanda Cohen, whose newly opened restaurant in New York City is called Dirt Candy, in reference to the origin of its vegetarian treats. "Heirloom tomatoes may look like Frankenstein, but they often taste better than the perfectly round, slightly plasticized tomatoes you sometimes see in supermarkets. An irregular shape usually has nothing to do with taste."

Europe, however, might have to wait a while for the UglyRipe. Although the rules have been changed for all but 10 of the 36 restricted fruits and vegetables, the regulations still stand that apples, kiwis, strawberries, lettuce, peaches, nectarines, pears, table grapes, sweet peppers and, yes, tomatoes still need to be pretty.

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