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Timing Is Everything When It Comes to Fresh Produce

The ZIPR Code is the industry’s first freshness metric | Image credit: Zest Labs

Have you ever wondered why your fresh produce often spoils long before the expiration date says it should?

Food waste is a frustrating phenomenon that not only affects our environment but also impacts consumers’ wallets and businesses’ bottom lines. Up to 40 percent of the food we produce gets thrown out, costing the nation an estimated $218 Billion each year; furthermore, food waste accounts for more than 2.6 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions annually — the equivalent of 37 million passenger vehicles.

Despite the many tools we have available, we aren’t consistently delivering fresh food with sufficient shelf life, meaning a staggering amount of fresh food is tossed. So, why in the hyper-connected and automated world does it seem we can’t solve the food waste problem? What can we do to fix it?

Understanding the variables

To fix a problem, we must understand the cause. Most retailers believe the primary cause of fresh food waste is poor in-store handling. This is a convenient rationale, as it allows them to assign blame to the last person who handled the produce. But haven’t we all experienced buying produce that looked good at the time only to see it spoil or grow mold the very next day? Well, the grocer has the same problem. In-store handling does have an impact on remaining freshness, but there is much more to the issue than that. In reality, most of the factors leading to food waste happen upstream in the supply chain before the produce ever reaches the store.

Consider the berry harvest

Studies indicate that cooling inconsistency is the primary contributor to early spoilage and food waste. All produce has a definable maximum shelf-life, or “freshness capacity,” but this can vary based on harvest quality, harvest conditions and the product temperature through distribution.

Strawberries, for example, will last 12-13 days when distributed at the proper temperature from farm to table. However, strawberries aren’t always ideally processed, sometimes sitting over two hours from harvest to pre-cooling and refrigeration. Every hour in this “field heat” can cost produce a day of freshness and, as a result, the berries will not meet their expected shelf life (reflected by the “best used by” date). Since the date labels are based on the harvest date — not accounting for actual handling — they must assume all produce harvested on that day has the same shelf life. That’s simply not true, and assumptions like this that don’t match reality lead to early spoilage and food waste.

How long fresh produce will stay fresh is a complex function of its environment and handling since harvest. And since most retailers don’t presently have visibility into the produce’s history, they often incur waste at the store and inadvertently offer produce with far less shelf life than the “best used by” date label indicates. Without consistent delivered freshness, growers, processors and retailers all will bear expense due to waste and have a difficult time creating a more sustainable supply chain.

Freshness requires proactivity

Growers and processors are well aware of the issues that can impact produce’s remaining freshness and do their best to address them. However, without the tools to monitor and manage each pallet of product, they rely on managing the process through initial temperature tests, sample checks of the process and visual inspection.

Unfortunately, this traditional practice of monitoring does not account for:

  • Delayed cut-to-cool time, which can significantly impact shelf life
  • Insufficient knowledge of freshness of all produce due to random sample checks
  • Under-monitored and rarely shared data on product condition in distribution
  • Early process-related issues not reflected in visual indicators

The game changer: Pallet-level monitoring, real-time tracking and predictive analytics. Actionable insights pulled from gathered data can improve visibility and decision-making within the fresh food supply chain, reducing waste and improve the sustainability of our environment. None of the issues that lead to food waste are problematic if supply chain stakeholders know about them as they’re happening.

Revisiting the strawberry example, if a distribution manager knows which strawberry pallets have reduced shelf life given the wait time in “field heat” before being pre-cooled, for example, they can send that shipment to a local store or restaurant. This informed decision at shipment means those strawberries can be consumed at full quality before they spoil, rather than shipping across the country, which requires up to five additional days of shelf life. Likewise, the produce manager can prioritize that pallet in inventory, moving it to store shelves earlier while it still has sufficient freshness.

Armed with this accurate real-time information, companies can proactively manage for freshness and reduce waste, saving businesses money and helping the environment. It isn’t a one-party issue — growers, processors, retailers and AgTech solution providers all need to work together across the supply chain to combat food waste and restore 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 take action to improve their business and their bottom line.


Peter Mehring is the CEO and a co-founder of Zest Labs. He brings extensive experience in engineering, operations and general management at emerging companies and large enterprises. Peter has led the Zest Labs’ efforts in pioneering freshness management… [Read more about Peter Mehring]


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