A crucial area for technology in the food world’s battle against waste zooms in on the ability to track the freshness of produce as it travels from farm to wholesaler to retailer to table. Keeping perishables out of the landfill requires more than a passing squeeze of a tomato or thumping of a watermelon to determine its degree of ripeness. Systems must be able to measure the varying conditions that impact spoilage and apply those standards to everything from apples to zucchini.
Walmart made recent headlines with the announcement of its Eden technology—a suite of apps that can determine a product’s freshness from farm to shelf. Developed via a company-wide hackathon, the algorithm uses FDA standards alongside a baseline of more than 1 million images. While not offering specifics, Walmart says the resulting technology is easy enough to be used by its associates to keep its shelves free of spoilage. Presumably, Eden is best applied as produce leaves its warehouses. As an example, the company explains that a lot of soon-to-ripen bananas headed for store 500 miles away can be diverted to a closer Walmart thus eliminating potential waste.
Parvez Musani, VP of supply chain technology at Walmart says Eden will help the company reach its goal of removing $2 billion in waste over the next five years. Some 43 distribution centers already have the technology in place and have already saved the Bentonville, Ark.-based company an estimated $86 million.
While Walmart’s approach has a noble goal, an image-based algorithm (as described in the company’s blog) may be open to individual interpretation. One man’s rotten tomato is another’s recipe for gazpacho. Using machine learning suggests that such a system is a continual work in progress as opposed to sensor-based technology which is not only more accurate but more easily accessed by all parties from farm to grocery supercenter.
One such provider of sensor-based freshness information is Altamonte Springs, FL.-based FreshSurety. According to its website, FreshSurety, uses inexpensive, disposable sensors that measure and report temperature, moisture and metabolite data using a proprietary wireless communication system connected to the internet. This information is converted to carton-level product freshness and shelf life assessments essential for effective quality-based purchasing, logistics and merchandising decisions.
FreshSurety is not alone in offering what appears to be a more advanced technological approach to product freshness. Silicon Valley-based Zest Labs offers Zest Fresh, a sensor-based logistics system to measure produce freshness. Zest Fresh assigns each pallet of produce an individual code that marks product type and data related to its exposure to the elements which would impact its spoilage. That information is uploaded to the company’s proprietary cloud where the data can presumably be tracked by anyone in the value chain from farm to distributor.
Zest Labs is basing its revenue on the savings it can offer its customers. CEO Peter Mehring told Fast Company that retailers and farmers pay his company 10% of the value of the waste they avoid by using the Zest Fresh platform. Mehring adds that his company aims to reduce a retailer’s waste by at least 50% with that savings going to his bottom line.