4 technologies tackling food waste in the supply chain
From reefer sensors to avocado imagery, venture capitalists are pouring hundreds of millions into the trillion-dollar problem of food waste.
Food waste statistics are easily misunderstood. Between all the stakeholders, consumers contribute the largest quantity of food waste — 27 million tons per year or 43% of the total, according to Refed, a U.S. nonprofit tasked with reducing food waste.
That stat alone has led to educational campaigns and ugly produce delivery services encouraging consumers to waste less and change the way they think about fresh produce.
But 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.
Alexandria Coari, director of capital and innovation at Refed, told Supply Chain Dive, "The food businesses are the ones that hold a lot of the power up and down the supply chain. They dictate what people buy at the store and the specs up and down the chain … They make the rules."
Amid a trucking capacity crunch and driver shortage, this level of inefficiency is both a waste of money and an opportunity.
"We estimate that grocery retailers alone are wasting about $18 billion of food annually, which is double their profits," Coari said.
One power companies along the supply chain have to mitigate this physical and financial waste is to implement new technologies to extend shelf life and get food to consumers faster.
Software to track and ensure freshness
Biotech to make produce more 'apeel-ing'
Imagery to make decisions quickly and precisely
IoT to monitor containers and palettes
The handful of startups offering food waste management software vary quite a bit in terms of what kind of data goes in, what kind of recommendations come out and how automated the process is.
"The first step with a lot of companies is figuring out where it's coming from. There is this lack of coordination across the value chain, and I would argue, a lack of coordination in-house. The systems aren't talking to each other. Only once you understand where the problem is happening can you do something about it," said Coari.
HelloFresh, the largest meal kit company in the U.S., uses Spoiler Alert software in all of its U.S. distribution centers. Spoiler Alert also counts food service giant Sysco as a customer. The software analyzes waste and suggest reduction tactics, but also integrates donation into the workflow to keep food out of the landfill.
HelloFresh said in April that it had reduced the amount of food headed for the landfill by 65% in less than one year and nearly doubled its donated food.
While Spoiler Alert requires manual entry of inputs from the user, some software is slightly more automated. Software startup Winnow, for example, uses a smart scale and an attached tablet to weigh and code the waste so that the software can analyze it and develop reduction strategies. Winnow is used by U.S. food service player Compass Group and several hotel chains.
LeanPath, another software startup, similarly uses a smart scale and tablet combo but adds a camera to store images of what is being wasted. Clients include IKEA, Aramark, Sodexo and Google.
Targeting the grocery store is Wasteless, which includes smart digital shelf tags to allow dynamic pricing based on shelf life.
Not to be outdone by startups, Walmart launched its own in-house food waste program called Eden in March, in an attempt to save $2 billion in five years. Started as an internal "hackathon," the winning proposal is now an app-based software program that has analyzed more than one million photos of fresh produce to a "freshness algorithm." With this capability, the company claims it can track temperature and freshness throughout Walmart’s supply chain, improve visual inspection and quality classification at distribution centers and make better decisions about what produce to allocate to what use.
(It must be noted here that Walmart is being sued for $2 billion by California startup Zest Labs, who claims that the retailer stole its technology after working together for years.)
Though consumer-facing businesses are slowly waking up to the benefits of actively managing food waste, a handful of startups are making biotechnology-based solutions that require next to no extra effort from the supply chain.
Apeel Sciences has become somewhat of a star of food waste technology both because of high profile backers like Bill Gates and Andressen Horowitz and an impressive war chest of $110 million raised. Apeel makes an invisible, edible coating that when applied to fresh produce slows down the rate of water evaporating that causes produce to degrade, but allows the natural exchange of gases unlike the traditionally used wax.
Apeel-coated avocados are headed to more than 100 Kroger stores later this month. The startup also works with Costco and even has a store locator on its website so that concerned consumers can buy its coated produce.
Even simpler than a coating, Chicago’s Hazel Technologies has developed a small packet that can be inserted into produce packaging to extend shelf life by omitting a vapor that delays ripening and stops the growth of mold and bacteria. The company currently has products specifically designed for melons, berries and okra.
Advanced types of imagery and more advanced analytics can offer supply chain players capabilities that resemble super powers. ImpactVision is a San Francisco-based startup that can tell the ripeness of an avocado without handling it or piercing the skin.
Fruits and vegetables make up 40% of food waste, according to Refed, and avocados are major offenders. Currently the main way their ripeness is tested is by feel or by destroying the fruit by cutting into it.
ImpactVision uses hyperspectral imagery to detect the amount of dry matter in an avocado. Hyperspectral cameras emit a particular spectrum of light, from the visible spectrum to near-infrared and then create an image from the light that reflects back, showing the chemical composition. Applying advanced data analytics and machine learning, ImpactVision can see the dry matter in avocados. More dry matter means less ripe fruit.
In fresh produce, decisions need to be fast above all else. The longer a palette of berries sits in the receiving dock of a grocery store, the more time it spends out of refrigeration.
AgShift uses deep learning, the technology that enables self-driving cars, to fuel a mobile app that can be used at any point in the supply chain when inspection is necessary. Though the app uses traditional imagery that comes with any mobile phone, the app can determine freshness, bruising, color and size with near perfect consistency — all much faster then measuring with a ruler as is often done now.
For refrigerators, the application of the Internet of Things (IoT) is fairly simple. Temperature can be measured and recorded and simple models can warn you when temps have veered out of their normal ebb and flow.
Maersk Line is doing just this with its Remote Container Management software, which allows clients to monitor refrigerated containers in real time as they move. The company has also backed a food waste-focused accelerator called FoodTrack that graduated its first class of startups in July.
But what about an indicator more ephemeral than temperature? Freshurety, a startup in Florida, is measuring literal freshness.
Remember that inspection process? One package is removed from the outside of the palette and visually inspected with the human eye. With Freshurety’s technology, the disposable sensors are dispersed throughout a palette and tell the receiver which palettes are more ripe, allowing receivers to properly allocate the fruit to different uses in the organizations (to be cut, sold whole, or used in prepared food etc.) to minimize waste. Freshsurety piloted the technology with Driscoll’s berries and AmazonFresh.
What motivates business to pull the trigger
Reducing food waste doesn't necessarily require cutting edge technology — there are other, perfectly effective levers to pull, like better inventory management and improving and expanding the cold chain.
But new technology can spread some of the power to reduce food waste throughout the supply chain and away from consumers and retailers, if adoption picks up from its current slow pace.
Coari said that while many supply chain stakeholders are motivated by the immense scale of the problem, other motivators are often what cause businesses to pull the trigger and invest in new food waste mitigation capabilities.
"Solving the problem of food waste is a means to an end. The ultimate goal, whether it be financial or CSR-based (reaching GHG emission targets or donation targets etc.) — any of those impacts are the best way in," said Coari.
- Supply Chain Dive Supply chains could help spare $270B of food waste with a few fixes
Follow Emma Cosgrove on Twitter