How one company uses Internet of Things sensors and big data to combat food waste

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.

These High-Tech Sensors Track Exactly How Fresh Our Produce Is So We Stop Wasting Food

BY EILLIE ANZILOTTI – FAST COMPANY –

How often have you gone to a grocery store, picked out what seems to be a fresh pint of blueberries, and opened the refrigerator door the next day to find half of them covered in mold? If your answer is “all the time,” you’re not alone: Those best-by dates that give us such blind confidence in the shelf life of our produce are nothing more than “a soft assurance,” says Peter Mehring, CEO of Zest Labs, a Silicon Valley-based tech company dedicated to preserving produce and grocery product quality along the supply chain. And in addition to frustrating customers, inaccurate sell-by dates result $30 billion of wasted food in the U.S. each year.

Through its new Zest Fresh tool, which was rolled out last fall and is now delivering measurable results, Zest Labs is helping food retailers better identify best-by dates to reduce the food wasted in transit or tossed after rotting unsuspected in fridges. Zest Fresh, Mehring tells Fast Company, uses real-time, sensor-based tracking to consistently monitor the freshness of a product, from time of harvest to when it hits retail shelves. Given that in the U.S. around $165 billion worth of food, or 40% of the total produced, is thrown out into landfills each year–with losses related to inconsistent freshness and sell-by dates accounting for 33% of that–Mehring and the team at Zest Labs saw an opportunity to use tech to cut back on some of that waste.

For retailers and farmers, implementing Zest Fresh technology is simple: All that’s required is installing sensors, which detect temperature, moisture, and location, on the produce pallets assembled in the fields before distribution, and connecting the sensors to the Zest Fresh cloud, which disseminates data to the various players along the supply chain. Most retailers, when they source produce from growers, expect it to arrive from the distribution center with 10 days of freshness remaining. In a series of baseline studies conducted at retailers throughout the country, Mehring found that only 30% of products actually arrived with that target freshness. After installing Zest Fresh technology in the pallets of farmers they source from, the number of products that arrived with 10 days of freshness to spare jumped to over 90%.

The way Zest Fresh is able to deliver on this improvement, Mehring says, is because it’s the first technology to actually develop a reliable freshness metric. Previously, “best-by” dates were determined by a general assumption of freshness, based on product type, distance traveled, and eyeballing. The ZIPR code–which stands for Zest Intelligent Pallet Routing and was developed by Zest Labs to facilitate the Zest Fresh tool–delivers a freshness metric based on the specific conditions of each item, which allows workers along the supply chain to adjust their decisions so the produce at the store is the most fresh. The ZIPR codes are tailored specifically to each product based on their rate of respiration–the process by which produce runs through the supply of sugar keeping them edible once they’re harvested. Cooling slows the respiration rate, which varies widely by type of produce; the ZIPR code accounts for those variations and issues cooling instructions accordingly.

Say you’re a lettuce farmer, and you’re working on getting a harvest to the distribution center. “The problem is, there’s an assumption that all produce harvested on the same day will have the same shelf life,” Mehring says. “That’s historically how sell-by dates are determined.” But in reality, a pallet of lettuce assembled in the early morning and sent immediately to the cooling center will already have a longer shelf life than a round from the same crop that was cut and assembled later in the day and left out in the hot sun for a while before making it into a refrigerator.

For each product, Zest Fresh provides a target ZIPR code that a pallet must hit in order to proceed along the supply chain (the ZIPR code is derived from the data sets tracked through the Zest Fresh cloud, and reflects both the product type and its temperature and exposure to humidity over time). Based on where a pallet’s ZIPR code falls in relation to the target code, Zest Fresh offers an estimate for the days of freshness remaining for each pallet. That estimate is dynamically updated along the supply chain; any time a product is mishandled–say, left out of a cooling facility for too long–the remaining freshness estimate will reflect that. “That allows someone in the distribution center to make an intelligent decision and say, ‘Okay, I expected 10 days of freshness, but this product only has 8 days left–I better send it to the store this afternoon instead of tomorrow,’” Mehring says. “We’re giving people actionable data to take corrective steps.”

Zest Fresh uses a flexible payment model. Retailers and farmers pay Zest Labs 10% of the value of the waste they avoid by using the platform. A recent study from Chainlink Research on the need for achieving consistent quality along the produce supply chain highlighted the ZIPR code and Zest Fresh as the first innovators in the space, and while the technology is still new, Mehring believes there’s room to scale. Zest Fresh uses a flexible payment model–while the retailers and farmers Zest Fresh works with won’t release financials, Mehring says they pay Zest Labs 10% of the value of the waste they avoid by using the platform. Zest Fresh, Mehring says, aims to reduce a retailer’s waste by at least 50%, so the tech company will earn 10% of that, and the retailer will still see a boost to their bottom line and efficiency. Right now, Zest Fresh is mainly working with produce, but the technology can and will scale up to beef, poultry, and seafood distribution chains this year; the technology will track the same temperature and humidity conditions, and adjust the ZIPR scores based on the specific needs of the product.

When it comes to reducing supply-chain and retail food waste in the industry, this data-driven approach, Mehring hopes, will be a game changer. Clarifying and backing up best-by dates could be a significant factor in reducing unnecessary food waste: A report from the nonprofit ReFED found that standardizing food freshness labels could divert as 400,000 tons of food waste annually, and save $4,547 per ton. Doing so, the report added, would also curb emissions by cutting back on unnecessary transit of products that end up in landfill, and save as much as 192 billion gallons of water.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company’s Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

Using the Internet of Things to reduce food waste (Huffington Post)

The USDA estimates that more than 30% of all food products in the United States are thrown away, costing the nation more than $161 billion per year.  This is often due to an inefficient supply chain that struggles to keep produce cool, and therefore fresh enough, from farm to store.

The temperature of produce is crucial, with even seemingly minute changes in the rate at which crops are placed in the correct temperature having a significant impact on the shelf-life of the produce.  Not only does this make for a whole lot of food waste, but it also makes it hard for consumers to trust the used by date on the produce itself.

Such challenges have encouraged a number of fascinating projects that aim to try and solve this problem and provide supply chain managers with real-time insights into the produce as it travels from field to store.

To read the entire article from Huffington Post, please click here.

Ecoark exec moved up to CEO position (ArkansasOnline)

Ecoark Holdings Inc. has named Jay Puchir its chief executive officer as part of a reorganization in advance of the company’s plan to complete its application for uplisting on the Nasdaq Capital Market.

Puchir moves into the CEO role after previously leading Ecoark’s financial planning and analysis, treasury and secretary functions. He replaces Ecoark founder Randy May as CEO. May will remain chairman of the company’s board of directors.

In addition to Puchir’s promotion, Ecoark has named former Wal-Mart treasurer Charles Rateliff as chief financial officer and treasurer. Rateliff retired from Wal-Mart in 2005 after a 25-year career and has been an independent member of the Ecoark board since May.

Roshan Weerasinghe also was appointed CEO of Pioneer Products, an Ecoark subsidiary.

Ecoark is a company in Rogers that focuses on reducing waste in operations, logistics and supply chains.

To read more from ArkansasOnline, please visit their website.

In Preparation for Nasdaq Uplisting, Ecoark Holdings Appoints Jay Puchir CEO and Adds Former Walmart Treasurer Charles Rateliff as CFO

Restructuring to Streamline Parent Company and Focus Key Subsidiaries on Profitability

Founder Randy May to Remain Chairman of the Board

 Rogers, AR – March 29, 2017Ecoark Holdings, Inc. (“Ecoark” or “Ecoark Holdings”) (OTCQX: EARK) today announced several key organizational changes to streamline parent company operations and focus key subsidiaries on attaining profitability as the company prepares to complete its application for uplisting on the Nasdaq Capital Market. As part of the restructure, the Ecoark board of directors has unanimously voted to appoint Jay Puchir CEO of Ecoark Holdings.  Ecoark Founder Randy May will remain Chairman of the Board after nominating Jay Puchir to assume the CEO role. The company also elected former Walmart Treasurer Charles Rateliff CFO and Treasurer of Ecoark Holdings.  The company’s CFO position has remained vacant since former CFO Yash Puri resigned in January 2017.

“Over the past 12 months, as a post-merger public company, we’ve successfully focused on fundraising and growth through acquisition. As we prepare for this critical next stage of the company and uplisting to Nasdaq, we’re proud to promote Jay as our new CEO to develop and execute our strategic growth plan and ensure we deliver maximum shareholder value,” commented Randy May, former CEO of Ecoark Holdings. “During his time as director of finance, secretary, and treasurer, Jay has been invaluable in helping Ecoark and our subsidiaries begin to adopt industry best practices. I’m looking forward to continuing to work closely with him as we enter this exciting next phase of the company’s maturation.”

Key Organizational Changes

In addition to appointing Jay Puchir CEO and Charles Rateliff CFO, Ecoark Holdings also announced two additional executive changes:

  • COO Roshan Weerasinghe was appointed as CEO, Pioneer Products, an Ecoark subsidiary, to focus full time on business development and not corporate operations; and
  • SVP of Business Development Gregg Hames will transition to his new role as SVP of Implementation, Zest Labs, an Ecoark subsidiary, moving from his role at Ecoark.

“Ecoark has rapidly and successfully transitioned from the development stage to a highly valuable collection of revenue-producing subsidiaries that solve major business challenges. We’re currently focused on improving our fundamentals, increasing sales through growth and acquisitions, and attaining profitability to maximize shareholder value,” said Puchir. “The fact that Charles is coming out of retirement to become CFO demonstrates his confidence in the company and the huge market opportunity in front of us.  I’m looking forward to the opportunity to lead this highly dynamic organization with disruptive technologies through one of the most exciting processes in business.”

Jay Puchir has held executive roles at several companies prior to joining Ecoark Holdings. Most recently, he led Ecoark’s financial planning and analysis, treasury and secretary functions, and worked with the Corporate Controller with financial reporting. Jay began his career as an auditor and consultant with one of the Big 4 accounting firms, ultimately earning the position of Senior Manager. He then held the role of the Director of Finance/Controller at a state college, and then Associate Chief Financial Officer within a Fortune 100 healthcare organization. A licensed Certified Public Accountant, Jay received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his Master of Business Administration from Rutgers University.

Charles Rateliff retired in 2005 from Walmart Stores as a Senior Vice President after a 25-year career. Following his retirement, he served as an independent consultant to several private investment groups. After receiving an MBA from the University of Arkansas, he was hired as an internal auditor for Walmart and within five years was promoted to Assistant Treasurer and later on, Treasurer. Over the course of his career at Walmart, Charles worked across several departments including compliance, risk management, profit sharing and associate benefits.  Charles has been an independent member of the Ecoark Board of Directors since May 2016.

In addition to the aforementioned executive changes, the Board voted to increase the number of Directors from seven to nine and will immediately begin searching for two additional independent Directors to fill the vacancies.

About Ecoark Holdings Inc.

Founded in 2011, Ecoark Holdings, Inc. is a growth-oriented company based in the retail and logistics hub of Northwest Arkansas. Ecoark’s portfolio of technology solutions increase operational visibility and improve organizational transparency for a wide range of corporate clients.

Ecoark’s technologies fight waste in Operations, Logistics and Supply Chains across the evolving global economy. The company’s portfolio of companies and technologies work to integrate people, processes and data in order to overcome ingrained operational hurdles and create new revenue streams.

Ecoark’s vision is to expose the cycles of waste that reduce efficiency and cost effectiveness across the business landscape. Its strategically acquired subsidiaries have anticipated and responded to key economic factors impacting every business today. Ecoark addresses these vital economic factors through four active subsidiaries, Zest Labs, Eco3d, Pioneer Products, and Magnolia Solar. For more information, please visit www.ecoarkusa.com.

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