Food waste in the United States is a seemingly intractable problem, with some reports stating that about half the food produced in the U.S. is not eaten.
The wastage amounts to billions of dollars in losses, and the Environmental Protection Agency says as much as $160 billion worth of food each year ends up in a landfill instead of an American stomach.
Where the food is lost could be anywhere on the food chain: from farm to processing factory, on delivery routes, in the stores, in restaurants and in the houses where it was supposed to be consumed. Food waste has been blamed on various reasons, such as consumers being overly picky about an apple’s aesthetic qualities, too much supply and not enough demand, and products becoming spoiled somewhere along the chain.
Post-harvest waste in particular happens partly when temperature-sensitive products are not managed correctly. A great deal of food waste is said to be a result of temperature problems experienced between the grower and the retailer. The result: more than $17 billion in annual losses.
What can be done to prevent this? Executives at Silicon Valley-based ZestLabs Inc., a subsidiary of Ecoark Holdings Inc., believe they have the solution: monitoring perishable foods with real-time analytics. SiliconANGLE spoke with ZestLabs Chief Executive Peter Mehring, a former vice president of the Macintosh hardware group at Apple Inc., about how he’s planning to solve the problem.
How did Zest Labs get started, and what was the inspiration behind the company?
Traditionally food was grown, harvested and eaten all in a highly local environment. But as the agriculture industry has expanded and we send fresh produce farther and farther afield, significant growing pains have developed within the industry. Our supply chain for fresh produce today covers thousands of miles and several days if not weeks, and we’ve done all this without a method for managing freshness, or even a measured freshness metric. There was always some waste even at the local level, and there likely always will be. But as our production has increased, waste has become a bigger and bigger issue, to the point that we now throw away more than a third of the food we produce.
From a social standpoint that’s hard to accept. We throw away this much food while an eighth of the world’s population remains underfed? It was this social issue that attracted us at Zest Labs to the issue of fighting food waste in the first place. What we observed when we first looked at waste within the supply chain was, while there was awareness of the issue, the solutions available primarily consisted of little more than basic forensic analysis. That is, identifying yesterday’s bottlenecks and working to prevent them tomorrow.
However, the supply chain is actually a lot more fluid than that. Today’s problems may not be the same as tomorrow’s, and in order to truly optimize you need a proactive approach enabled by real-time analytics. No business wants to waste the product they invest so many resources in producing. With the right data delivered in real time, they don’t have to.
Can you give us a general overview of the technology?
Zest Fresh uses Internet of Things-enabled temperature sensors to monitor time and temperature at the pallet level, which is used in combination with product and field data to calculate a “freshness metric,” which we refer to as our Zest Intelligent Pallet Routing Code (ZIPR Code) in real-time. This data is all analyzed in the Zest cloud, where our algorithm determines the actual measured freshness, and intelligently routes products with the least remaining freshness to the nearest locations and vice versa. This not only cuts back on the waste of valuable food, but also preserves pre-harvest investments in water, fertilizer, labor, etc.
We have different temperature sensors for different produce, designed to maintain contact with the product and deliver the most accurate possible temperature reading. The software delivers pre-emptive alerts with prescriptive corrective actions whenever it identifies potential mishandling, so ease of use is high. Zest Fresh provides a process-specific mobile application for each worker function, empowering the worker to make more informed decisions with product, location and process specific information. For example, when multiple pallets of freshly harvested produce are awaiting processing (i.e. pre-cool), Zest Fresh can prioritize which pallets should be loaded next based on available pallets past handling, equipment capacity and throughput, current shipping demand and existing inventory. This helps the workers optimize the processing for freshness based on the measured handling of the pallets in the yard.
Who will benefit?
Growers, retailers and restaurants see major benefits from working with Zest Fresh because of the real-time insight it provides that helps them make better decisions that maximize food freshness. For example, retailers often accept produce that looks fine, only to watch it spoil on their shelves days before it was supposed to be based on the assumed freshness implied by the date label. Or worse, they sell it to customers who expects it to last for a week, only to open their refrigerator and find it spoiled after two days. Everybody loses.
However, through pre-emptive alerts and corrective actions, Zest Fresh provides growers and retailers a tool to proactively maintain proper processing and handling that maximizes freshness. Further, natural variances in freshness are accommodated through intelligent routing, significantly improving the consistency of the delivered freshness. The grower produces and delivers a more consistently fresh product, the grocer sells a more consistently fresh product, and the consumer receives a more consistently fresh product. Everybody wins.
Most food wastage solutions seem to be aimed at “salvage” rather than distribution. Is this a negative way of dealing with the problem?
There are many organizations out there that aim to reduce food waste, but those are after-the-fact solutions like salvaging or repurposing the waste. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s like coming up with innovative methods for cleaning up messes rather than just not making a mess in the first place. Zest Labs differentiates itself by taking on food waste prevention at the source. No food service organization wants to waste food in the first place, so they need real-time insight into what’s causing waste so that they can take proactive measures before the spoilage occurs.
A lot of the efforts are focused on fighting waste at the consumer level – promoting composting, encouraging consumers to shop smarter, etc. However, less than half of food waste happens at the consumer level. The majority happens within the supply chain, so while a change in consumer behavior is certainly necessary, we need changes within industry, too.
So, real-time monitoring of food could become the norm?
The most important thing to do is educate people on the issues that face the industry. There are so many misconceptions out there about food freshness and estimating shelf life that at times it can be overwhelming and misleading. There really is a science to food freshness and maintaining the right temperatures throughout shipment. All of that needs to be monitored, providing feedback in real-time, not in a forensic, after-the-fact way when it’s too late to make the necessary adjustments. We like to think of the supply chain like traffic; they are both dynamic and capacity influenced. What is a bottleneck one day might be different the next. This is why we need constant, real-time management of the products, as the impacts causing food waste change each day.
We have hybrid cars, solar panels and wind farms, yet if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only the United States and China. The food industry needs to catch up. What’s more, throwing away products that you devote resources to producing is simply bad business.
What happens when data suggests the food might be at risk of being spoiled?
We have found that the most common mistake is based on not accounting for measured freshness for the initial shipment of fresh produce from the grower to the retailer. The industry assumes that all produce harvested within a day has the same remaining freshness – which is why they print the same date labels for the day’s harvest, irrespective of handling or processing. We have found that roughly 30 percent of the harvested product has some mishandling, resulting in decreased remaining shelf life. When the impacted product is routed for retail sale, and further to distant destinations, it often results in spoilage.
However, Zest Fresh identifies the impacted product, and recommends routing to restaurant customers and/or closer destinations. That initial routing decision is critical in accommodating the variances that occur both naturally, as well as in processing and handling.
While there are impacts that occur in transit, we have seen this impact less often, and it’s less extreme. Typically, in-transit mishandling may result in a one- or two-day reduction in remaining shelf life, which can be accommodated by prioritizing warehouse management to ship the impacted product first to the store. Zest Fresh enables this First-Expiring-First-Out inventory management in the warehouse or distribution center by providing the measured freshness from our ZIPR code as the basis for the inventory rotation date. As Zest Fresh constantly updates the measured freshness ZIPR code each time it is read, based on the accumulated handling data since harvest, reading the ZIPR code at the distribution center will reflect any in-transit temperature excursions.
Here’s an example: A pallet of strawberries that is immediately cooled to 34 degrees after harvest will stay fresh for 14 days. The entire supply chain is thus built assuming a 14-day shelf life. However, if the strawberries were to wait in the sun for an additional hour before being pre-cooled, that would knock an entire day off their assumed shelf life. Two hours, two days. The ZIPR tag continuously tracks time and temperature so that produce that has only 12 days remaining gets shipped together to nearer location, and that produce with a higher freshness number goes farther abroad. So it’s not so much about re-routing shipments that are already on their way as sending them to the right place to begin with.
What might producers learn from the data collected?
Zest Fresh provides two types of data results that benefit the users: real-time operational data and summary analytics. The real-time operational data is pre-emptively maintaining maximum freshness, as well as accounting for natural freshness variations. The industry currently monitors cold chain shipments at the trailer level, and the retailers accept/reject shipments at the same level. Much of this is based on the fact that, if the sampled product indicates a problem, and the trailer level temperature monitor also reflect a temperature violation, it is a “safe” evaluation by the retailer to reject the entire shipment.
However, studies have shown that the temperature within a trailer will vary by 30 percent, which means some of the items may not be as severely impacted as others. With pallet-level monitoring, Zest Fresh not only tracks the actual product temperature for each pallet, reflecting the variances within the trailer, but also identifies the specific pallets that may be impacted. This helps the quality control inspection focus on the impacted product – and possibly rejecting it – while also recognizing the pallets that were not negatively impacted, and accepting those pallets.
The second type of data that Zest Fresh provides is summary analytic data. This data is organized by process step, and compares performance over time (day to day, week over week, etc.) and by equipment or crew. This allows the grower to optimize performance for each process step, and experiment with new procedures while monitoring performance.
Many grower process approaches are based on experience, but lack hard data or comparisons to rate the merit of each approach. Zest Fresh allows direct measurement on all processes, and compares against all recorded approaches. Summary analytics encourage process experimentation and improvement, which benefits everyone. Summary analytics also can recognize negative trends before they impact the grower’s customers, moving process performance and practices back to expected levels.