“Perishability is so fundamental to the food system it’s almost unchallenged,” James Rogers, founder and CEO of Apeel, said to me this week during a virtual event for The Spoon.
Specifically, he meant that perishability is built into the global food system, whether that means accepting it as a cost of doing business or making sacrifices around quality and nutrition in order to avoid it. Either way, perishability is linked closely to the world’s $2.6 trillion food waste problem, which happens in many different forms up and down the food supply chain.
To get a deeper understanding of both the perishability issue and its relationship to food waste, Rogers and I took some time at this week’s event to walk through the different steps of the food system
As Rogers sees it, there are four main categories of the food system to examine: grower, suppler, retailer, and consumer.
The grower stage involves the actual cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and other perishable items. It’s a point in the supply chain where those involved have to make sacrifices in order to avoid excessive food waste. By way of an example, Rogers described how tomatoes are normally picked when they are still hard and green. The decision about when to harvest the food is based not on when it’s in peak eating condition but on making it last longer as it travels to suppliers and eventually to the grocery store. That works — for the grower. But by disconnecting the fruit from the plant early on, we’re sacrificing flavor and nutritional content, and it means that a consumer could very well buy a tomato from the grocery store and wind up chucking it because of its mediocre taste.
Building more time into the supply chain is a point Rogers has emphasized again and again during our conversations. He is, of course, invested in this idea through his company Apeel, which makes an edible coating for fruits and vegetables that extends their shelf life, in some cases by weeks. His goal, and the goal of others in the food industry, is to build more time into our supply chain so that crops can be picked when nature dictates and not before.
Suppliers feel the time crunch perhaps most acutely of anyone on the food supply chain. These are the people that receive produce from the grower, sort it, box it, and ship it to grocery stores and other buyers.
“Suppliers have a clock that’s ticking,” Rogers explained. Using another example, he referenced a small farm growing caviar limes, which only last for a couple days. Fruit had to be sorted, packed, and shipped on the same day to avoid spoilage, an issue that was solved once the farm started using Apeel’s coating on the limes.
But while growers and suppliers race to avoid perishability, retailers and other buyers, such as foodservice operations, have it built right into their business model. The typical grocery store builds large fruit and vegetable displays so they can sell more and sell it faster. However, Rogers said the rate at which food ages speeds up by a factor of four once it leaves the walk-in cooler and goes on display.
“If you want to maximize your sales, you will always want to have a full shelf which leads to waste,” he said, adding that grocers without a waste problem have missed sales opportunities, since demand has outpaced supply.
Apeel is one such solution helping retailers combat the problem of perishability. Others, including Hazel Technologies and StixFresh are also bringing their technologies to retailers with the goal of extending the life of produce.
The last stop on the food supply chain also happens to be the one where the majority of food, at least in the U.S. and Europe, gets wasted. Rogers was quick to point out that “no one wants to waste food.” However, despite the growing number of potential solutions available to consumers to curb food waste, expecting massive shifts in behavior is next to impossible. “Just telling them they shouldn’t waste food doesn’t get to the crux of the issue,” Rogers said during the event. Rather, the strategy should be about helping people create an abundance of food in their homes. Once again, building more time into the life of produce and therefore into the supply chain is what would enable consumers to keep more fresh food at home without the fear of it going to waste.
At the end of the day, he said, “we have to make the most environmentally beneficially solution the cheapest, easiest solution.”