Would You Buy a Pre-Peeled Orange?

On Whole Foods, convenience products, and the outrage culture that just united them

Kumar's Edit / Flickr

This time, it was oranges. Nathalie Gordon, shopping in a Whole Foods on Thursday, came across an unusual item in the pre-packaged foods section of the store: a series of oranges, encased in plastic boxes, that the store was selling pre-peeled.

She tweeted about her find:

The tweet, unsurprisingly, went viral. There are, after all, so many things to object to here: the excess packaging dedicated to a food that, as Gordon pointed out, already comes nicely pre-packaged by nature. The suggestion that peeling an orange is just so much work. The Marx-would-squirm labor—implied, but unseen—involved for the people who did that work on the behalf of Whole Foods’s patrons. The boxes’ nonsensical MADE RIGHT HERE labels. The Buffalo Bill-y creepiness of the oranges, stripped of their skins, left with only meager bits of pulp to preserve their dignity. The irony that this whole orange-peeling escapade would be enacted by an establishment that is named, uh, “Whole Foods.”

And, you know, on and on. YOU WILL NOT PEEL THEM FOR US, the outraged people cried. WE WILL PEEL THEM OURSELVES. Gordon’s image of the oranges, peeled and packaged and assembled merrily on a refrigerated shelf, hit that foods-of-outrage-culture sweet spot, in precisely the manner of pea guac and asparagus water and collard greens: They are, together, a small thing with big implications—about, in this case, environmental stewardship, about the moral limits of convenience, about wealth and class and privilege. They are easy to get indignant about, especially when there are so many people evidently sharing the indignation.

“That makes me unbelievably angry actually,” one tweet went. “Talk about [un]necessarily contributing to plastic taking over the planet.”

But while excess packaging is the most obvious objection to pre-peeled oranges—Mother Earth cannot speak for herself, so—the complaints quickly evolved and expanded and escalated. Nude oranges! Technically very large tangerines, but whatever! Such laziness/bouginess/entitlement! The fruits, converted into media, became a metaphor not (just) for wasteful packaging, but also for the accumulation of small differences that divide the have-nots from the have-a-lots. Orange peels became, for a moment, a strange (but also, in their way, apt) extension of the class anxieties that have long simmered in the U.S. and in the U.K. (Gordon lives in London.)

And media outlets, jumping on the story—and availing themselves of the many, many potential puns that might be deployed in its telling—amplified all the outrage, with headlines like “Peeled oranges in plastic? Whole Foods gets pulped on social media for practice” and “Whole Foods Sells Peeled Oranges in Plastic Containers, World Revolts (This is pretty bad, any way you peel it).”

So, yes. It’s just another instance of Whole Foods acting—that loaded, loaded word—bougie. (“Whole Foods’s Pre-Peeled Oranges Are the Ultimate in Bourgeois Laziness,” Eater’s headline on the matter went.) And it’s also another story, as my colleague Conor Friedersdorf put it of Whole Foods’s recent collard greens controversy, “about how tiny things come to divide us.”

Because of all that—and perhaps exhausted by similar battles it’s waged with an outraged public—Whole Foods quickly pulled the peeled oranges from its stores. It apologized to Gordon and, by extension, everyone else.

Definitely our mistake. It’s telling wording. Peeled oranges are silly, to be sure, but it’s an open question whether they’re much sillier than, say, pre-cut vegetables, or shredded cheese, or any of the other foods that are produced and packaged and sold in such a way as to increase their convenience for the people who buy them. (Orange You Kind of Glad You Can Buy Pre-Peeled Fruit? another news headline might have read.) And, regardless, the peeled oranges were certainly not a mistake in the manner of Whole Foods’s asparagus water, which was meant, a Whole Foods spokesperson explained, “to be used as broth” and was incorrectly sold as a standalone product. Whole Foods, in this case, did not really make a mistake; it simply violated some consumers’ sense of what constitutes a fair trade-off between personal convenience and collective responsibility.

And, yet: Mistake. Definitely our mistake. It’s a reminder, all in all, that the products for sale at Whole Foods—products packaged not just in plastic and cardboard, but in smugness—are consumed in many more ways than the literal. The store’s cereals and frozen pizzas and fresh-ground nut butters and fruits and vegetables are foods, to be sure, but they are also, in their way, aspirations and arguments. Their labels—“organic,” “non-GMO,” “all-natural,” etc.—suggest that they have ethical dimensions. Food as a network, food as a responsibility, food as a kind of morality—that is Whole Foods’s chief branding ploy.

So it’s telling that, in this case, the argument didn’t end with Whole Foods pulling its pre-peeled oranges. The discussion continued. As many people pointed out, to Whole Foods and Gordon and each other, peeling citrus can be a challenge for people who have arthritis or similar ailments. Peeling oranges can be impossible for people with motor-skill disabilities. And yet, as others replied, there have to be limits: Environmental responsibility demands them. But then: The needs of consumers! But then again: The needs of the planet!

And on and on. The discussion will likely continue, and it will likely continue to play out as one that is not only—indeed, not really—about oranges, but about the kind of world we want to build, together. It will be silly, but in another way it won’t be. It will be yet another instance of something extremely small giving people an excuse to talk about things that are extremely large. Orange you glad for that?