For ‘ugly’ produce, what’s inside counts

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For ‘ugly’ produce, what’s inside counts

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Last November, a project called “Saving Ugly Potatoes” was held near Hongdae, northwestern Seoul. Using 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of potatoes that didn’t look nice enough to be sold at major grocery stores, a group of foodies volunteered to cook curry and share it with 600 passersby. The message was clear: even “Grade B” potatoes, which are considered less valuable because they are too small or have blemishes, are still great ingredients.

Grade B agricultural products, often referred to as “ugly,” are usually ignored by the public. However, they are becoming go-to ingredients for some consumers as more people realize that Grade B fruit and vegetables have the same quality in taste and food safety as other produce. Along with growing demand at online markets that focus on selling Grade B produce, other online vendors are beginning to sell the secondary fruits and vegetables as well.

Online shopping mall 11st sells “ugly” fruits and vegetables in bulk. The “ugly potatoes” are about 100 grams each, smaller than a typical potato, which weighs about 150 to 200 grams, and ugly potatoes also have funny shapes. But the price is 1,097 won per kilogram ($0.48 per pound), or about half the price of normal potatoes at 2,055 won. Grade B tomatoes and carrots sold on the website have become popular for juicing.

“Ugly fruit and vegetable are the new niche market,” said an 11st insider. “Sales during June this year increased 46 percent compared to June last year.”

Another online vendor, Auction, also has a section exclusively for “ugly fruits.” It has estimated that its Grade B fruit sales increased 20 percent compared to last year. Thirty Mall, which sells products nearing their expiration date, started out with just 90 users when it opened in May of last year but that number has skyrocketed to 370,890 as of late June.

In Amarket, Nonghyup’s online shopping mall, Korean melons, carrots, mountain yams and sweet potatoes are gaining popularity. Organic Grade B Korean melons cost 3,725 won per kilogram, which is 17.8 percent cheaper than regular organic Korean melons, which cost 4,500 won per kilogram. Farmerspace, which sells Grade B and regular produce, opened its first offline market last year and estimates it will make a profit of 300 million won by the end of the year.

“There is a trend of consumers looking for [smart ways to shop] in the long-term stagnation of consumption,” said Lee Sam-seop, head of the consulting department at Nonghyup Economic Research Institute.

“The demand [for Grade B products] was previously concentrated on fruits but has expanded to include vegetables like tomatoes, Korean melons, cucumbers and bell peppers.”

According to a recent study by Nonghyup Economic Research Institute, consumers have positive opinions of Grade B products. Of the 1,000 people surveyed aged 19 or more, 72.2 percent responded that they have a “positive opinion of purchasing Grade B products,” and 81.7 percent replied they are aware Grade B products are for sale. This lends to the opinion that Grade B agricultural goods have become profitable, and are not just consumed by farmers or thrown away.

The change is partly due to efforts by producers and retailers. A classic example is the popularity of the “pass apple” among students.

When Typhoon Kompasu swept through the Chungcheong provinces in September 2010, destroying many apple farms, the farmers decided to market the remaining apples as those that had survived the storm. The “pass apples” became a hit during the time of senueng, or the college entrance exam. Another example is small abalones of about 10 grams that have little value because of their size, which recently became known as “abalones for ramen.”

“Even with their rising popularity, Grade B products won’t take over the entire agricultural market,” Lee said.

“We need regional statistics and sales data, which will help Grade B products contribute to environmental protection and the expansion of farms.”

BY CHOI SUN-WOOK [eunjik@joongang.co.kr]






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