A third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, equating to around 1.3 billion tons every year. Not only could this excess food easily feed the hungry, it is also a huge economic burden, with food waste costing an estimated $2.6 trillion a year. Technological innovation is playing an important role in reducing the amount of food waste generated, and it is also helping to re-educate people about the actual life-span of food.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation claims that “roughly one-third of the edible parts of food produced for human consumption, gets lost or wasted globally, which is about 1.3 billion tons per year.” Food waste also costs an estimated $2.6 trillion a year, according to research by the United Nations. At the same time, 800 million people are hungry every day. Redistributing wasted food to feed the hungry seems like an obvious solution, but significant improvement is needed in global supply chains to get food to where it is needed in an edible state.  

Reducing wasted food is attracting significant attention by technologists across the globe. Apeel Sciences is a Californian-based company whose aim is to create innovations which help the food system operate in harmony with nature. Its latest product is a “second skin” formula which keeps food fresh for longer. The process sees food sprayed with a water-based solution then, once dry, a second skin is created from the edible and flavourless coating. This FDA-sanctioned skin-like barrier is made of fatty acids and organic compounds from the pulp, peels and seeds of other fruit and vegetables, and reduces water loss and oxidation, which are the two main reasons for food deterioration. The results show that the food is able to stay fresh for twice as long as it would ordinarily, and without the need to be refrigerated.

The company, which describes itself as producing ‘innovation rooted in nature’, is receiving industry attention, and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has contributed $100,000 towards a research grant. In fact, the company has raised a total of $110 million from other investors who believe in its potentially industry-changing concept.

Other technologists have innovated around food shelf life by using image recognition and predictive learning. Food suppliers are affected by spoilage due to insufficient product life, unexpected supply chain disruption or produce diseases. ImpactVision has developed a non-invasive technology that provides insight about the quality and characteristics of different foods on a factory conveyor belt such as freshness, shelf-life or contamination through a foreign object detection system. Its technology allows producers to deliver consistent food quality and prevents supply chain waste. The company is also progressing hyperspectral imaging which will enable consumers to take a picture of an avocado on their phone, and find out how many days until it’s ripe. Real-time assessment of food will be possible due to hyperspectral imaging being more advanced than human vision.

Purposeful packaging is also a growing trend within food shipment. UK-based technologist company, It’s Fresh!, has created a new sustainable packaging delivery system using a proprietary “active ingredient” that can be printed directly onto existing packaging for fruit, vegetables and even flowers. Its shelf-enhancing product, Infinite, is proven to prolong shelf-life and extend freshness and quality by absorbing the natural ripening hormone, ethylene. This innovation is designed to complement existing sophisticated packaging by prolonging the freshness and quality of the produce from the moment it’s picked to when it is unpacked at home. Infinite is being trialled by its launch partner, UK supermarket Morrisons, this year.

Other technologists believe the problem with food waste is as a result of the ‘use-by’, ‘sell-by’ and ‘best before’ dates on food packaging. Waste charity Waste & Resource Action Programme (WRAP) reports that a third of the UK’s annual two million tonnes of food waste is because of date-label confusion. Technologist, Solveiga Pakštaitė, has innovated to try and tackle this issue. Pakštaitė has developed Mimica Touch, a ‘biologically accurate’ food spoilage system, where labels change in texture from smooth to bumpy once the food inside the package is truly past its best. Pakštaitė’s motivation to create the system followed a university project working with the UK’s Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. Whilst speaking with visually impaired people, she realised that they’re unable to follow the date system on food and rely on their own senses instead. She was also inspired by the life stages of a banana skin, which turns bumpy and brown as it gets older. The company’s packaging replicates this natural process whereby the label’s texture changes within an hour of the product spoiling. The labels will be used on milk products initially, then on yoghurts also. Trials are also being undertaken for use with cooked sliced ham, with ready meals expected to follow suit.

Food technology innovations that tackle food waste have the potential to enable supply chains to become significantly more efficient. Reducing food wastage in the supply chain will also generate second order efficiencies in labour, water and fuel costs. The economic benefits will doubtless drive the supply chain to adopt these changes quickly, but it will be much more challenging to change consumers’ mindset towards ‘best before’ dates on packaging.  Convincing consumers to take a more pragmatic approach towards shelf-life will require sustained and consistent education, particularly in the developed world.  Technology will also play a role in educating consumers that the extended shelf life of a food product doesn’t have a detrimental effect on its quality and freshness.

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