Australian supermarket demands for unblemished fruit have led to a high level of waste in the tomato industry, according to researchers.
A study from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) in Queensland found that up to 87% of undamaged, edible tomatoes were being rejected and wasted based on appearance.
The study followed two separate supply chains originating from the same Bundaberg tomato farm—one that went to Brisbane and the other that stayed local.
Tara McKenzie, environmental scientist at USC, said after observing both supply chains from the point of harvesting through to sorting and handling, transport and storage, she found that tomatoes were being rejected at every point because of strict supermarket specification.
“At every link, from harvesting and sorting to the market floor, edible tomatoes that were slightly odd-shaped or market, or too small or too large were rejected,” she 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.”
The study reported on interviews with staff along the supply chain, with one field manager telling researchers that the size they picked depended on the day’s price.
“If the price is a bit high, the supermarket wants the small tomatoes as well but otherwise, if the price is low, we do not pick the small stuff,” he said.
Food waste costs the Australia economy $20bn each year, according to government figures.
Lila Singh-Peterson, co-author of the study, said while supermarkets were partly responsible for the strict standards, the policies of supermarkets was a reflection of consumer expectation.
“The standards supermarkets impose on farmers are very stringent and the farms have to meet those standards or the supermarkets will just choose another supplier,” she said.
“The waste is ridiculous. Regulation needs to occur at the market end so that rather than having supermarkets dictating contracts with farmers, the regulation should occur through a central market.”
The study also found that between 70% and 84% of tomatoes grown were left in the field because the cost of harvesting and supplying them to market was greater than any profit to be made.
Bree Grima, managing director for Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers, said the levels of waste were an issue growers had long been concerned about.
“All we can do is continue to put pressure on supermarkets and show that we are at risk of leaving the industry, and indeed already a lot of us have, as growers simply cannot make ends meet,” she said.
Singh-Peterson said Grima’s comments pointed towards a less secure future for Australian food if there was not more government support for farmers.
She added government support for farmers had been minimal and only about 4% of Australian farm income could be traced to government support, compared to 61% in Norway and 52% in South Korea.
“We’ve really abandoned farmers and just expect them to cope with extra market pressures,” she said.