We have a problem with fresh food shelf-life. How do we know this? America wastes 40 percent of its food, according to the National Resource Defense Council’s 2017 Wasted report. That’s like buying five bags of groceries, leaving the store and throwing two of them into the dumpster and driving away. The report goes on to state that 12 percent of fruit and 10 percent of vegetables are wasted at the retailer. Even more is wasted by consumers, many of whom watch produce spoil prematurely at their home before they can consume it.

No other industry would tolerate so much waste. And, while retailers and suppliers try to recycle or re-purpose waste, little has been done to avoid it. Instead, the industry has assumed that waste cannot be prevented, and it is just a cost of doing business.

Finding the Cause of Fresh Food Waste

The first step to fixing a problem is understanding its cause. In the case of fresh food shelf-life and the resultant waste, most retailers believe the primary cause is poor in-store handling. Why? Because the produce spoiled at the store, and the blame is assigned to the last person who handled the produce.

But the primary reason we have a problem managing fresh food shelf-life is because we misunderstand the causes of fresh food waste and where they occur. (Hint: they do not occur at the grocery store.)

Most of the factors leading to fresh food waste happen early in the supply chain due to harvest conditions, and temperature and handling variations within the first 24 to 48 hours after the product is harvested. Studies indicate that improper or inadequate temperature management – starting at harvest – is the primary contributor to early spoilage that impacts fresh food shelf-life and leads to wasted fruits and vegetables.

All produce has a definable maximum shelf-life, or “freshness capacity.” This freshness capacity varies based on harvest quality and conditions, and the impact of time and temperature on the product through processing and distribution. These variations – which occur at the individual pallet level – can lead to produce harvested from the same field on the same day to have shelf-life that differs by five days or more. For example, pallet A could have 13 days of shelf-life and pallet B, harvested from the same field on the same day, could have only eight. Additional variations can occur at the pallet level throughout the supply chain as the produce makes its way from the supplier to the retailer due to a variety of factors, so it is critical to maintain monitoring and management for each pallet from harvest through store delivery to prevent and reduce waste.

Implement a Freshness Management Solution

None of the issues that lead to fresh food waste are problematic if the fresh food supply chain stakeholders know about them as they’re happening and are provided with the necessary information and insights to act to address issues as they arise.

The Zest Fresh™ freshness management solution provides growers, shippers and retailers with autonomous, end-to-end cold chain visibility for proactive decision making to improve delivered freshness and reduce shrink by 50% or more. It addresses the problem of fresh food waste by starting at the source, delivering information and insights that enable supply chain workers to identify and prevent issues that lead to waste.

Zest Fresh utilizes wireless IoT temperature sensors, inserted into the pallets at harvest, to autonomously collect data to monitor the product’s condition and processing and, combined with cloud-based artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics, delivers the insights that improve freshness management from field to store.

Zest Fresh includes the industry’s first freshness metric, the Zest Intelligent Pallet Routing Code (ZIPR™ Code). The ZIPR Code is a dynamic date code that empowers workers and systems to better manage produce based on actual freshness, rather than relying on the false assumption that the harvest date label accurately represents remaining shelf-life.  It provides a way of optimizing inventory and distribution management that ultimately improves delivered freshness, produce margins and customer satisfaction.

With Zest Fresh, a distribution manager knows a strawberry pallet with reduced shelf-life because it waited in the yard for several hours before being pre-cooled, should be sent to a local store or restaurant instead of a long distance. This informed decision at shipment means those strawberries can be consumed at full quality before they spoil, rather than shipping them across the country, requiring five or six additional days of shelf-life, only to have them spoil in transit or when they arrive, resulting in waste. Likewise, with dynamic fresh food shelf-life information, the retail produce manager can prioritize that pallet in inventory, moving it to store shelves earlier while it still has sufficient freshness, avoiding waste and mark-downs and improving customer satisfaction.

The Benefits of Freshness Management

Armed with accurate real-time information, suppliers and grocers can proactively manage for freshness and reduce waste, saving businesses money and improving produce margins. Real-time monitoring and management, combined with predictive analytics improve visibility and decision-making within the fresh food supply chain, reducing waste and improving environmental sustainability.

Sending so much of the food we produce to the land-fill doesn’t make sense from an environmental or a business standpoint. Fortunately, there is a better way for growers, processors and retailers who want to act to improve their business and their bottom line.

Pallet-level freshness management of produce throughout the supply chain − and providing the information and insights to act on changes in conditions in real-time – reduces waste and increases delivered freshness and customer satisfaction.