A recent article in Forbes discussed several approaches to reducing or preventing food waste. The article, Can You Solve Food Waste With An Airbnb Model? begins by citing data from a recent Zest Labs food waste research study measuring and comparing the shelf-life (or freshness) of produce being sold at major grocery chain stores across the United States. Our research found that the freshness of produce – specifically strawberries, romaine lettuce and packaged salad mixes – varied significantly from store to store as well as within each individual store. This shelf life variability causes early spoilage, which can disappoint consumers and result in costly waste for the grocer and the consumer.

The Forbes article states:

The Zest Labs study revealed that preventing food waste due to premature spoilage requires careful monitoring and evaluation. A simple difference in precooling times can affect shelf life. For example, strawberry pallets that wait five hours instead of two hours have a three-day shelf life difference.

Preventing Food Waste: Repurposing

The article discusses some approaches to minimize food waste. It mentions Full Harvest, a San Francisco-based company that is focused on salvaging and repurposing excess or blemished produce from farms in a “direct to factory” model where the produce is made available directly to food and beverage companies. The model is akin to the popular AirBNB approach used for making excess housing inventory available to the public for vacations and holidays by creating a clearing house of sorts for unsold produce.

Is repurposing excess or blemished produce for other uses a viable way to reduce food waste? It certainly can play a role. Farmers can benefit if they are able to sell excess or funny looking produce instead of turning it into waste. Food and beverage companies, as well as restaurants, can benefit because they can get access to food at a discount or take mis-shaped fruits and vegetables and turn them into perfectly edible and attractive meals. As mentioned in The Economist, there are multiple companies pursuing this approach.

But repurposing food using these approaches only addresses part of the food waste problem.

Food Waste is Largely a Supply Chain Problem

To solve the larger food waste problem, we also need to improve how fresh produce is handled from the time it is harvested to the time it reaches the grocery store or restaurant. This is a fresh food supply chain management problem.

A 2018 article in Supply Chain Dive states:

…A recent analysis by the Boston Consulting Group determined the role of private sector companies is the “most critical” in the fight against food waste. Supply chain infrastructure and efficiency alone could reduce the amount of food wasted by $270 billion (in value) of what the report estimates to be a $1.5 trillion problem by 2050.

According to the National Resource Defense Council, 12 percent of fresh fruit and 10 percent of fresh vegetables are wasted at the grocery retailer. This is because the produce is “spoiling prematurely” at the store. That is, the grocery was expecting the produce to be fresher than it actually is, so the grocer culls the spoiled produce and throws it in the trash – food waste.

ReFed’s Alexandria Coari states “”We estimate that grocery retailers alone are wasting about $18 billion of food annually, which is double their profits.”

But the problem gets worse. Many of us have had the experience of purchasing produce that looked fresh at the store only to get it home and find it has spoiled the next day, so we have to throw it in the trash – food waste.

ReFed, in their Retail Food Waste Action Guide, as cited in Supply Chain Dive, states “Investments in cold chain management, dynamic routing, better forecasting and inventory management could have the “greatest profit potential” for retailers looking to reduce food waste.”

Preventing food waste in the supply chain requires improved visibility and real-time insights to manage variability. We need to start by understanding what causes the food waste, beginning at harvest. Zest Labs’ research has shown that the largest impacts on the freshness of produce occur in the first 24 to 48 hours after harvest. Harvest conditions and post-harvest handling and processing (such as extended cut-to-cool times) can significantly impact the shelf-life of fresh fruits and vegetables.

For example, consider strawberries from a particular field that have a maximum shelf-life or freshness of 12 days, in perfect conditions. If a pallet of these strawberries sits in the field for three hours, it can lose three days of shelf-life. If it waits another two hours for precooling, it could lose another two days of shelf-life. Those strawberries now have about seven days of shelf-life left. These variabilities in post-harvest handling and processing occur. They can be minimized but not eliminated. What’s important is to understand and manage the variabilities.

Back to the berries…those berries with seven days of shelf-life may look perfectly fine but if they’re put on a truck for a five-day cross country trip, they’ll arrive with about two days of shelf-life. As a result, they’ll either be rejected by the grocer (and wasted), spoil on the store shelf (and wasted) or spoil with the consumer (and wasted).

Improving Supply Chain Visibility and Management

If, however, we knew the dynamic remaining shelf-life of those berries was seven days, we could instead ship them locally, a one day trip, where they’d arrive with six days of shelf-life, enough for the grocer to sell them fresh and for the consumer to enjoy them – no waste. Only pallets with sufficient shelf-life would be sent on cross-country trips – no waste.

This is the Zest Fresh approach to preventing food waste. We use IoT sensors to collect data about the condition and handling of the produce from the time it is harvested, through packing and shipping and on to the grocer or restaurant. We dynamically analyze the data using predictive analytics to calculate the impact of harvest conditions, processing and handling on the produce’s freshness. We can determine that the pallet of strawberries should be shipped locally or across the country.

We can also help grocers identify when produce has only one to two days of freshness left – not enough to sell to consumers but still fresh enough to be delivered to food banks who can quickly distribute the produce to feed the hungry.

Zest Fresh also helps growers, packers, shippers and processors identify and fix issues that can impact freshness such as delayed cut-to-cool times and inconsistent or insufficient precooling.

We Need to Use a Variety of Approaches to Prevent Food Waste

To prevent food waste, feed more people and improve environmental sustainability, we need to employ all of the tools at our disposal:

  • Repurposing ugly fruit directly to food and beverage companies or restaurants who can use it as feasible to do so.
  • Enabling grocers to identify food at risk of spoiling so that they can provide it to organizations like Feeding America and local food banks to redistribute before it spoils.
  • Using solutions like Zest Fresh for Produce to improve fresh food supply chain visibility and management and prevent waste through better shelf-life management and improving operational efficiency across the post-harvest supply chain.