There are a lot of popular myths these days. Many people, for example, think the shelf-life of Twinkies is years or even decades. In fact, it’s about 45 days. Fresh produce, by comparison, has a much shorter shelf-life and is also associated with a common myth: Produce shrink is caused at the store.

Why is this a myth? It’s because the produce looks fresh when it arrives at the store shelf. The problem is that visual inspection or date labeling are very inaccurate (essentially worthless) in trying to anticipate the remaining shelf-life of produce, because the product appears fine until the very end of its life and then it quickly changes and spoils. The product’s lack of sufficient shelf life manifests itself at the store so that’s where many think the problem lies.

Not true. The problem starts at the beginning of the supply chain. The fact is that the primary impact to shelf life occurs in the first 48 hours after harvest – in the field and at the pack house.

The combination of harvest quality, initial processing and distribution decisions result in significant variability of delivered shelf-life and freshness – even for pallets picked the same day from the same field. This variability is what leads to shrink that appears later in the product’s shelf-life when it’s at the store or consumer level. This unmanaged shrink leads to lost profits, out-of-stocks and dissatisfied customers. Managing for and reducing this shrink immediately improves retail profitability.

Our team at Zest Labs recently published a study that confirmed that shelf-life variation and shrink starts in the field. Data collected from strawberries harvested in California in August and September of 2017 showed that strawberries’ optimum freshness capacity was determined to be 14 days. That is, if properly refrigerated and handled from the time of harvest, the product would reach its “end-of-life” at 14 days.

Unfortunately, these optimal conditions rarely occur due to the complexities of the fresh food supply chain.

Using the Zest Fresh™ solution, our research found that the delivered pallets of strawberries had shelf-life variability by as much as 12 days – out of the 14 days of freshness capacity. That’s a variability of an astounding 86% of the fruit’s total freshness capacity. That’s a LOT of variability which leads to a lot of waste if you’re estimating the freshness of the fruit based on visual inspection or date labels based on the day it was picked.

Today’s fresh food supply chain doesn’t account for this variability.

Managing for Freshness Capacity Reduces Shrink

We address this challenge by managing the variability in freshness capacity at the pallet level, helping growers and retailers reduce waste and deliver an improved customer experience.

We apply cloud-based analytics to enable intelligent pallet-routing, which enables growers to identify and ship each pallet based on its actual remaining freshness, matching it to the specific retailer’s needs. For example, a pallet with 12 days of remaining freshness could be shipped across country, whereas a pallet with nine days of remaining freshness should be shipped locally. As a result, each retailer receives product with adequate remaining freshness for distribution to the store and sell-through, while still ensuring five days of remaining freshness for the customer.

Using this approach, growers and retailers will gain insight into the dynamic remaining freshness of their fresh produce and perishable products in real time to more intelligently route product to prevent waste, improve profit margins and ensure happy and loyal customers.

Click here to download the results of the study.