Behind the headlines: Supermarket fruit & veg

Behind the headlines: Supermarket fruit & veg

Joanna Blythman believes our supermarket produce isn't nearly as fresh as we're led to believe. Are we being overcharged for subpar quality fruit and vegetables?

Too much for too little?

In Britain we’re encouraged incessantly to eat more fruit and vegetables, yet our consumption has actually dropped. We always trailed well down the European league for eating our greens, but the latest research for the National Farmers’ Union shows that this pattern is more marked than ever: fruit sales fell 14 per cent and veg sales five per cent between 2007 and 2014. And I’m not surprised.

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All too often the produce on sale here is unappealing and off-puttingly expensive. Of course, when you can get your hands on fresh, seasonal British produce, it can compete with the equivalent on sale further afield. Scottish raspberries, for example, can trump the Spanish equivalent. English asparagus can be sensational. It’s hard to beat a firm head of British cauliflower, or a freshly picked English apple.

European v British

But anyone who travels abroad cannot help but be struck by the overall unfavourable contrast between the fruit and vegetable selection in other countries, and what’s on offer here. I used to think that shopping for fruit and vegetables dutifully, rather than enthusiastically, was an unfortunate consequence of living in a Northern European country, until I spent time living in Amsterdam in winter. I discovered that the produce in Holland is fresher, more varied and, most importantly, much cheaper than in the UK. There are lots more outlets there too, with plenty of independent greengrocers and markets.

Our problem here in the UK isn’t our climate, it’s our supermarkets. They charge too much for produce that isn’t fresh, ripe or particularly good, and focus on a handful of commercial varieties that don’t reflect nature’s biodiversity. The most common variety of strawberry on sale at the height of the season is still the relatively tasteless variety, Elsanta. At £2 for a smallish pack, is it any wonder that people get fed up of forking out for such lacklustre berries?

Green and backward

Choosing lemons in supermarket

Lemons in Spain, France or Italy are large, often fragrant and full of juice. Here they’re small, full of pips and pretty dry. Like so many other supermarket fruits – nectarines, plums, mangoes, peaches – UK chains have instructed their suppliers to pick them ‘green and backward’ (as it’s known in the trade) to extend their shelf life. Supermarkets have also remodelled our vegetables to suit their selling requirements. For instance, spinach in the UK generally means the watery baby variety, when large-leaf spinach has infinitely more taste and keeps better. Throughout Europe, it’s taken for granted that cucumber is sweet and crunchy. People there know that goodtasting celery is yellowy-white, but UK chains fill shelves with the green fibrous sort, which has an aggressive flavour.

When they do sell more varied produce to a standard many of us expect – for example, Swiss chard and purple sprouting broccoli – big retailers sell it for a premium that most people can’t or won’t pay. As any good greengrocer knows, you drive sales by offering seasonal abundance and affordability. Currently, the hunt for produce that fits the bill starts outside the supermarket.

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What do you think of the produce standards in British supermarkets? Let us know in the comments below…