How technology is changing waste

In 2015, the UK Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) released a report which highlighted the monetary benefits of reducing food waste. According to the report, by reducing food waste from 20 to 50 percent, the food industry could save between $120 billion to $300 billion. Furthermore, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently revealed in a report that one third of the world’s food is wasted each year, and the US and Europe are responsible for approximately 60 percent of all food waste.

On average, 21 percent of all waste arises from spoilage, and fresh fruits and vegetables make up around half of this waste due to their temperature sensitivity. In addition, these products can largely be affected by other external conditions post-harvest and require constant refrigeration to maintain freshness.

With climate change, increasing land and labor costs, and new laws forcing greater efficiency in harvest, cooling, and distribution, farmers are starting to rethink spoilage—not just to reduce it but to maximize on profit.

Traditionally, it was common practice to send more products than ordered and write off a percentage due to spoilage or refused shipments, but this is becoming increasingly less affordable and less acceptable in terms of the investment made to produce it. There is also a growing demand from the industry for better care and distribution to address global food shortages, which is leading forward-thinking companies to embrace new technologies to better position themselves for ongoing profitability.

However, spoilage is still occurring at a much earlier stage of the supply chain and, because the damage isn’t always noticeable until it is too late, farmers remain unaware and food spoils before it reaches the grocery store or immediately upon purchase by the consumer.

How Does Spoilage Occur?

For producers managing perishable products, a key challenge is keeping those products at optimum conditions, which is intensified as the food makes its way through the various stages of the supply chain. Each step offers a chance for the condition to be compromised which could significantly reduce the shelf life of the produce.

The industry is under growing pressure to find a trusted and secure way to document temperature handling, a condensed and accurate expression of temperature data for quality assessments at receiving, and a traceable format that is compatible with reporting requirements.

Embracing Smart Sensors

Within the past 10 years, product managers have started to use temperature loggers in trucks and shipping containers to allow for more accurate temperature handling. These loggers offer a two-step approach, which can be both time consuming and costly, to record temperatures in the truck or container and are collected upon arrival at their destination, where data is downloaded and read.

However, as there isn’t enough time in the receiving window to fully assess the temperature history before shipments are accepted or rejected, meaning that reports can be slow to generate and evaluate to determine product quality. Visual inspections don’t always reveal damage. Shelf life isn’t known, and complete confidence in the product can be elusive.

With the introduction of smart sensors, we are beginning to see a change in that uncertainty because they travel with the goods and are able to calculate shelf life in real time. Product managers are then able to obtain data and reports that give freshness grades in terms of hours or days remaining. With this product-specific information, they can pay by freshness upon receipt, redirect shipments for quicker sale, and manage inventory for freshness on the store shelf. In short, they are able to maximize the value inherent in the goods received.

In addition, as traditional loggers monitor the truck or the container, they do not stay with the product for its entire journey through the cold chain; therefore, it can be difficult to pinpoint at which step of the chain an incident occurred to reduce the quality of the food. Inaccurate tracking of the produce essentially removes the chain of responsibility and makes determining the shelf life more of a guessing game.

However, sensor tags that travel with produce maintain the chain of responsibility because they can be configured to monitor changes in custody as well as time and temperature. They can determine whether a product has been interfered with and reflect product temperature significantly more accurately. The ability to document where a product has been, who has had contact with it, and the processes it has been exposed to establishes better accountability. It’s essential to curtailing foodborne illness outbreaks and for isolating profit leaks in the cold chain.

Whilst some may view the need for transparency as burdensome and invasive, forward-thinking companies view it as an opportunity for brands and individual growers, regardless of their size, to distinguish products based on quality. Quality creates the basis for better prices, because the product consistently lasts as long as product managers and sell-by dates say it will. If care has been taken in other quality areas, product stability ensures customer satisfaction of the end product.

In this new era of growing food in a world that is realizing its limits, pre-consumer handling of food reveals a paradigm that has valued cheaper, faster, and better over quality, transparency, security, reliability, and accuracy. Consumers are asking for the latter, and regulations are demanding it.

Expert Takes, Feature