Is that a cucumber in your pocket?

There was a news story yesterday that the European Union has decided, in light of the current global food shortage, they will no longer be throwing out misshapen fruits and vegetables.  Bendy bananas, quirky cukes and warped wasabi will now appear on shelves as Class 2 produce.

I did a double take and thought, “What? They’ve been throwing out edible vegetables all this time, just because they didn’t look nice?” I don’t why it never occurred to me to wonder about the perfection  of produce available for purchase.

So, I went to visit my local greengrocer to find out more.  I’ll call him Vito.  Vito said, “How YOU doon?”  

After an exchange of pleasantries I put my misshapen produce query to him. Vito said, “Oh ya, tons of produce gets chucked out alla time just ‘cause it ain’t pretty enough”.  

Vito seemed disproportionately angry about the subject.

“Cucumbers, f’rinstance are trone out da most,” said Vito.  “Nobody wants a cucumber than ain’t straight and an’ tote-lee roun’ and tick, ya know?” he added, with a pained look in his eyes.

Poor Vito. I made my escape while he was still mumbling about small, bent cucumbers being just fine with Peking duck or something.

Anyway, I checked the Canadian Food Inspection site for cucumber regulations and was astounded to find that in order to find their way onto our grocery store shelves, seedless cucumbers must:

  • Be practically or fairly straight.  The height of the inner arc of curvature does not exceed 76 mm (3 inches), when measured from a flat surface
  • Be not more than very slightly constricted and not more than moderately or slightly tapered or pointed at either end.
  • Have a good characteristic green colour over at least 85% of its surface area.
  • Have a minimum length of 280 mm (11 inches);
  • Have a minimum diameter of 41 mm (1 5/8 inches)

There are a couple more pages of cucumber regulations on the site if you’d care to read them.

Will Canada follow the EU and begin encouraging nationwide enjoyment of the less-than-perfect cucumber specimens? Would you buy misshapen produce? Will Vito ever find true happiness?

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17 responses to “Is that a cucumber in your pocket?

  1. Eleven inches? Are you serious? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cucumber that long. I’d guess most of our cucumbers are around 8 or 9 inches long.

  2. I know that the same thing happens south of the border, though it is usually the farmers who voluntarily pull the produce. This is a problem for small, organic farmers who seem more likely to grow ‘unattractive’ fruits and vegetables. My understanding is that most of this produce makes its ways to food pantries and other charities.

    Looking over the requirements listed, I find it amusing that of the 20+ cucumbers I have picked from my home garden not one of them would pass muster in Canada. However,I have no problem whatsoever eating them. They have character.

  3. Most but certainly not all of these misshapen fruits and veggies go into industrial processing. You know for canned carrot chunks and sliced beets etc. Nothing wrong with that except the farmers can’t get as much for a curly cuke going into relish instead of a perfectly formed one going to the store whole.
    The real sin however is if misshapen but perfectly healthy food is sent to the store they are to throw it out instead of selling it.
    LOts of stores now send it to food kitchens or charities but tons get thrown out every day and just wasted.

  4. That’s insane! Who cares if a cuke isn’t perfectly round or straight? You’re going to slice the damn thing anyway!

    I remember as a kid we used to go to the farm and get the “bad” apples. Mostly they were too big to be sold to the stores. Often they were thrown out.

    The mind boggles at the waste….

  5. Heidlou – If the cucumbers in your life are 8 or 9 inches, I think you’re still doing pretty well. And 11 inch cuke? Almost freakish.

    Tantalus – Well, I hope they’re doing something useful with the knobbly veggies, but food processing plants aren’t always equipped to deal with stuff that isn’t a certain size and shape – -won’t go through the machinery properly or whatever.

    Violetsky – At least the EU is right on top of making changes when the current regulations become outdated. They’re still way ahead of us.

    Bandobras – Part of the issue is that misshapen fruits and veg can’t be packed properly, and so will get damaged in transit and so can’t get shipped. So everything has to be the same. Also, sometimes the misshapen stuff is bad in other ways, but no one has time to find out, so it’s best just to chuck it. I don’t think the freaky stuff ever makes it to the grocery store.

    Jazz- My mind is certainly boggling. I grew up on a farm and I know we had to throw away a lot of produce because it wasn’t acceptable to any of the places we sold our stuff to, including canning/jam type factories. Everything had to be sorted and only the stuff that met the appearance standards was allowed. Even trying to sell the leftovers (perfectly good, but a bit ugly stuff) at a roadside stand, no one wanted it. And, it was too much for us to eat, so it got thrown out. I suspect farmers dispose of a lot of food — shipping it to food kitchens or charities wouldn’t be cost effective for them.

  6. When we got home-grown carrots from the garden of the neighbour who lives behind us, the girls would literally fight over who would get to eat the carrots with ‘two legs’. I’m sure curly cukes would be similarly prized at our house.

  7. OMG! That is truly ridiculous, and it never occured to me either why the produce was perfect, but of course, it’s not like it’s all automatically perfect soooo…
    Well, at least the EU is changing, but the fact that they had this to begin with, and we still have this, while there are people all over the world who can’t find anything to eat… well… I just might have to steal this story and discuss on my own blog. Don’t worry, I always give credit.

  8. We have cucumber regulations? Okay, so this totally peaked my curiosity and I headed over to the CFIA for a look and started reading: definition, grades, sound. SOUND?! Cucumbers make sounds?! Oh, haha, sound as in free from decay *sheepish grin*. Hmmm….minimum length 11 inches. Huh, no wonder the boyz are worried about cucumber competition. Oh! Sorry, didn’t expect to go there. Defects, cottony leak. Cucumbers use tampons?! Oh dear. I think this is turning into a case of too much information about the food I eat. Back away from the website. Retreat! Retreat!

  9. Alison – Maybe when you’re paying 3 bucks for one you expect perfection.

    Noha – Steal away — it’s not my story, just one I happen to have read.

    UP – Hey, you have the same initials as I used to have. Yup that CFIA website makes for some interesting reading. There are regulations for everything. We should all get on our knees and thank the government for taking care of us so well.

  10. oh, this is so sad! what a statement on our society though, seriously. like the island of flawed toys that no children want to play with.
    i hope they at least compost that stuff.

  11. You know, XUP, the homeless folks, and other people too, regularly go through the bins behind Safeway, IGA, and other big supermarket stores, to get the “imperfect” food for free. There is all kinds of stuff in there – carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, various fruit, yada, yada, even cheese. Anything that isn’t “perfect” and “pretty” gets put in there, and people know at what time of day is best to go there and get the stuff. When one hasn’t got any money, food is food, bent, crooked or imperfect.

    The juiciest, sweetest strawberries IN THE WORLD are grown in the Lower Mainland of BC, but the supermarkets don’t sell them anymore, because they don’t look as “pretty” as the cardboard ones from California. So, the local growers don’t get supported by the local supermarkets.

    Something has gone terribly wrong somewhere.

    Great post!

  12. @noha – You wouldn’t believe the quality measures that go into produce, particularly apples. I worked for Durand-Wayland in the early 90’s on fruit sorting conveyors. Apples/oranges/etc are placed on one end and move down the line. Each piece is photographed (from which you can measure color and size, as well as detect bruising). Then each piece is weighed (combined with the sizing from the camera, you can also determine density). Based on the criteria setup, each piece would then go down the conveyor till it neared the appropriate spout, and then it would be derailed off the conveyor and whisked away. Of course, it seems that by the time the apples reach my particular grocery store, they’ve been beaten by a gang of vicious thugs, making the pre-sorting unnecessary.

  13. Meanie – that’s exactly the analogy I was thinking of when I first read the story — The Island of Misfit Toys and Charlie-in-the-Box. The poor misfit vegetables nobody wants.

    Jo – I suspect the stuff in the dumpsters isn’t so much misshapen fruits and & veg (which never even make it as far as the supermarket) as expired items — which are usually quite edible for a few days. Bottom line is we, in the privileged part of the world waste a hell of a lot of food, while almost 900 million people don’t have enough to eat. Including people in our own country/province/city.

    Pearl – We sell almost everything with the eyes. Dazzle the eyes so we don’t have to use our brains when purchasing. Who cares if it tastes like crap, has no nutritional value, falls apart in a week? It LOOKS great!

    Brad – I believe! As I said, I grew up on a farm and we had to throw out a lot at source; then more gets thrown out at processing, more at packing, more at shipping, more at receiving, more at wholesale, more at retail, more at home. And, may I say what a fascinating work history you have.

  14. I second Jo; when I lived in Berkeley, I never ever paid for produce, because the dumpster diving was so good. Some markets even actively helped dumpster divers out by tipping us off to big hauls, and separating out their “garbage.” Sometimes you’d cruise by and there would be a flat of peaches perched next to the dumpster for the taking, or a dumpster totally full of bread.

    Furthermore, a lot of zoological parks and small farms also take unwanted produce to use as animal fodder, so it doesn’t all go to waste, even though it is crazy to think that perfectly edible produce gets the boot for being ugly.

  15. meloukhia – Indeed, we’ve got some really screwed up priorities. I’ve just posted something that’s sort of a companion piece to this.