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Zest Labs Seeks to Prevent Food Waste at Harvest Level by Using IoT Technology

Waste360 sat down with Kevin Payne of Zest Labs to discuss preventing fresh food waste by better managing shelf life.

There is a lot of innovation happening right now in the fresh food industry. Over the last few years, significant investment has been made in AgTech (agriculture and technology) solutions, particularly preharvest for field management, irrigation and pest control. Now, the industry is turning its attention to postharvest AgTech, and that’s where one San Jose, Calif.-based company fits in.

Zest Labs, a company that develops monitoring technologies to improve business performance while making a positive impact on the environment, is demonstrating the measurable benefits of using autonomous Internet of Things (IoT) technology, predictive analytics and machine learning to proactively manage the supply chain and reduce food waste.

“In a world with so many hungry people, we simply cannot tolerate waste,” says Kevin Payne, vice president of marketing for Zest Labs. “This waste problem is not only about food, but it’s about the labor, water, fuel and other resources that go into producing it. By proactively managing the supply chain to prevent waste, we promote broader sustainability, food safety and transparency and ultimately feed more people.”

Zest Labs has developed the Zest Fresh solution that uses analytics and data to determine the remaining freshness of food and to enable proactive decision-making throughout the supply chain.

Waste360 recently sat down with Payne to discuss preventing fresh food waste by better managing shelf life, from postharvest to the retailer.

Waste360: What is your food waste solution?

Kevin Payne: Zest Labs’ flagship solution is called Zest Fresh, which is focused on preventing waste for the fresh food supply chain. Rather than repurpose or recycle waste, Zest Fresh is designed to reduce or eliminate waste at its source by harnessing the right data at the right time. For fresh produce, for example, the cause of waste begins in the field at harvest. Zest Fresh also can be used to reduce waste for protein-based products such as meat, poultry and seafood.

Waste360: How does it prevent fresh food waste?

Kevin Payne: By collecting data, we can identify the dynamic remaining shelf life for fresh food, like a pallet of strawberries. There can be various impacts on freshness as the product moves through processing. By providing insights to the grower or supplier, we can help them improve their operations and also prevent waste further down the supply chain.

In January 2017, we introduced the industry’s first “freshness metric,” which we call the Zest Intelligent Pallet Routing Code, or ZIPR Code. The ZIPR Code provides growers, shippers and retailers with the actual remaining shelf life. This enables intelligent routing that ensures each pallet meets the retailer’s freshness requirements. A pallet of strawberries from Salinas, Calif., with 12 days of shelf life could be shipped across the country—a five-day trip—and still have seven days of remaining shelf life for the retailer and consumer. A pallet with only seven days of shelf life would be shipped locally, say to Los Angeles. This proactive approach of measuring freshness at the source prevents waste from happening later in the supply chain.

Waste360: What is the technology behind it?

Kevin Payne: Predictive analytics and machine learning technology powers Zest Fresh. Data is collected using IoT condition sensors and autonomous wireless access points throughout the supply chain, from the grower to the shipper to the retailer. These insights help growers, shippers and retailers take a deeper look into their supply chain and optimize their practices to retain freshness of food.

Let’s use produce as an example. Have you ever purchased raspberries that look great when you buy them at the store, but when you pull them out of your refrigerator the next morning they’re mushy and have grown white beards? That sudden change may be due to improper handling, the impact of time and temperature on the raspberries. Each product has a maximum shelf life or freshness capacity that is impacted across the supply chain before it reaches your refrigerator.

Zest Fresh profiles the total freshness capacity for each product. Then, at harvest, we insert an IoT temperature sensor into each pallet of product and collect data on the impact that temperature has on the product. Research has confirmed that freshness varies at the pallet level, hence why we collect data at the pallet level. For example, a pallet of strawberries could sit in the field for three hours at 85 degrees Fahrenheit and result in losing three days of shelf life, significant if the typical shelf life is around 12 to 13 days. An adjacent pallet may only be in the field for 30 minutes, which would significantly lower the impact on shelf life.

Waste360: How does this benefit the waste and recycling industry?

Kevin Payne: Zest Fresh prevents the creation of waste by ensuring each pallet is delivered to the retailer with sufficient freshness for their sell-through and consumption by the consumer. If, however, we identify a pallet with only three days of shelf life, that information could be used to route that pallet to a food bank or other purpose to ensure it is consumed quickly and not wasted.

Waste360: How does it benefit produce growers, retail grocers, restaurants and foodservice businesses?

Kevin Payne: For growers, we provide insights and intelligence into their processes, from harvest to shipping. We can tell them how long product is waiting in the field or waiting to go to pre-cool, where the field heat is removed. We can tell them the efficiency of their pre-cool operations and make sure that their quality processes are being adhered to. For grocers, we help them compete in an increasingly dynamic and volatile marketplace.

Retailers are facing new competitors, new business models, increased freight costs and consumer buying habits that are stressing their already razor-thin product margins. By reducing waste at the retailer, we can help them improve their margins by 6 percent or more. Restaurants tend to consume products more quickly, but we also help them ensure that products meet their freshness requirements.

Additionally, the entire supply chain benefits from having complete visibility and transparency into the freshness of food. This helps track-and-trace systems promote food safety and manage recalls.

Waste360: What are the statistics on this?

Kevin Payne: Through our work with growers and retailers, we have consistently been able to reduce waste for retailers by 50 percent or more. Thirty percent of product at the retailer is wasted before it is consumed due to freshness issues. By cutting the likelihood by at least half, we immediately reduce their costs and improve product margins by 6 percent or more. Growers are also able to reduce costs by improving asset utilization for labor, trucks and expensive pre-cooling systems.

Waste360: Explain your protein solution.

Kevin Payne: Similar to produce, protein has a shelf life. While there are different factors impacting freshness, the basic logic remains the same—prevent oxidation and improper handling, and proactively manage the supply chain.

Traceability and food safety are key benefits in managing freshness of protein. Our protein solution can also better inform people about the provenance of the product. Is the seafood really what it is being marketed as? Or is that red snapper really tilapia? Is the beef truly grass-fed? Is the chicken truly free-range? We can track the product from its source to ensure authenticity.

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