Crooked cucumbers, two-legged carrots, pears too big - or too small. In the Netherlands, more than 10% of all fruit and vegetables grown will not be sold, because they don’t fit the accepted norms. Kromkommer wants to change this perception of ‘beauty’. "We’re giving fruit and vegetables back their rights.", says founder Chantal Engelen.
If you tend your own vegetable garden you’ll know that nature produces fruit and vegetables in so many different shapes and sizes. Yet, instore, everything looks pretty much the same. "This situation arose because of European legislation which, in practice, forbids the sale of vegetables and fruit that don’t fit a legally-defined set of characteristics.", says Engelen.
Curved green beans, double carrots and crooked cucumbers are therefore banned from the shops. "For example, a paprika categorised as 'Class 1' may have a curvature of no more than twenty per cent. And apples in a similar class must have a red blush on more than ten per cent of their skin," she illustrates. "Even though everyone knows that shape has no bearing on taste or nutritional value."
Since 1 July 2009, many standards have been abolished, but a stubborn few remain. "For example, kiwifruits that have grown together into a kiwifruit ‘trinity’ still cannot legally be sold," says Engelen.
In the meantime, the consumer has become accustomed to seeing 'perfect' vegetables and fruit on the shelves, and retailers use their own product specifications to maintain this situation – and these are often stricter than the EU standards. "We want to change that," says Engelen. "Because we believe the shelf looks a lot nicer with some diversity."
New, we could say more holistic, quality standards, a fair price for everyone in the chain, knowing where and who your food comes from, and working together are the keystones of Kromkommer’s vision and work. And there’s much more that they’re up to: the company recently won over the press by distributing tiny prunes at the Gay Parade in Amsterdam, and by placing a container containing 7,000 kilos of discarded courgettes – equivalent to three days production of the average grower – in the centre of the Dutch capital.
"We do not believe in pointing a finger," Engelen emphasizes. "That's why we try to tell our story with humour." That this approach works was confirmed by a test with crooked cucumbers at the Jumbo supermarket in Wageningen. "Consumers realized that they are just as good as any other cucumber, and indicated that they are willing to pay the same for them."
Kromkommer was the first company in the Netherlands to produce vegetable soups made from 'saved' vegetables, and brought these to market in 2014. The range now has eleven varieties - including a number of organic soups in both domestic and food service sizes - and are available at some 150 shops and restaurants located, mostly, in the centre of the country. "Our soups are also in the Waste is Delightful section at the Jumbo supermarket in Wageningen", says the entrepreneur.
Waste is Delightful
Waste is Delightful (www.verspillingisverrukkelijk.nl) is a platform for entrepreneurs who make delicious products from food that would otherwise be thrown away, fermented or processed into animal feed. Not just vegetable soup from ‘waste’ vegetables, but also beer from stale bread or soap made from orange peel. "We want to persuade consumers and businesses to reduce food waste," says Engelen. If it were up to the platform, every supermarket in the Netherlands would soon have a Waste is Delightful section. "The products can be purchased separately or as a Christmas box.
Kromkommer is also stirring things up politically. For example, Van Engelen and her colleagues wrote a vision document about the need for new quality standards for fruit and vegetables. "The Christian Union political party responded by submitting a motion to the Dutch House of Representatives," she says. "It sets out what needs to be changed in the law, and also in retailer’s product specifications."
The issue has been picked up by the Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, who is now holding discussions with chain partners and intends to place the issue on the European agenda.
In the meantime Engelen has immersed herself in another subject: toys shaped like two-legged carrots, heart-tomatoes, crooked cucumbers and other fun-shaped vegetables. "When children learn at a young age that vegetables can come in many shapes, they learn to judge the quality differently and, as consumers, will be more prepared to buy them," she explains.
Kromkommer started a crowdfunding campaign on the 10th of October to enable development of the toys. "We want to sell 750-2,000 pieces via this campaign", says Engelen. "If this succeeds, we will be able to offer the toys for sale through toy stores - first in the Netherlands, then internationally."
Small steps, big results
Kromkommer has achieved a lot in recent years, but will continue fighting for equal rights for all fruit and vegetables. "Start small, and do not get trapped making big plans", is Engelen’s advice to other entrepreneurs. "Then the results will come naturally."
Cutting by half the amount of food wasted in the Netherlands is the goal of the Taskforce Circular Economy in Food (TCEF), one of four national platforms launched within the REFRESH project, and its members. The Taskforce motivates and supports companies to connect initiatives, accelerate innovation and achieve positive behavioural change among consumers. The initiative thus brings the circular economy ever closer.