Fight to curb food waste increasingly turns to science

Fight to curb food waste increasingly turns to science thumbnail

Hate soggy french fries and mealy apples? Science can help.

Restaurants, grocers, farmers and food companies are increasingly turning to chemistry and physics to tackle the problem of food waste.

Some people are trying to slow down the ripening of fruit by using spray-on peels and chemically enhanced sachets. Others are working on digital sensors that can detect meat safety more precisely than a label. Thermodynamics are used to keep fries crisp in packets that are attached to takeout boxes. Experts believe that there has been an increase in awareness about food waste and the high cost of it, both in dollars and in terms of environmental impact. U.S. food waste startups raised $4.8 billion in 2021, 30% more than they raised in 2020, according to ReFed, a group that studies food waste.

“This is suddenly a big interest,” said Elizabeth Mitchum of the University of California, Davis’ Postharvest Technology Center. She has been involved in the field for over 30 years. “Even companies that have been around for a while are now talking about what they do through that lens.”

In 2019, around 35% of the 229 million tons of food available in the U.S. — worth around $418 billion — went unsold or uneaten, according to ReFed. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), food waste is the most common type of material that ends up in municipal landfills.

ReFed estimates 500,000 pounds (225,000 kilograms) of food could be diverted from landfills annually with high-tech packaging. A sensor from Stockholm-based Innoscentia can determine whether meat is safe based on the amount of microbes present in its packaging. Ryp Labs, which is based in the U.S., and Belgium, are working on a produce label that releases a vapor to slow down ripening.

SavrPak is a product of Bill Birgen, an engineer in aerospace who was fed up with the soggy food in his lunchbox. A plant-based packet was created by Bill Birgen, an aerospace engineer. It is made from food-safe materials and approved by the U.S. Food Drug Administration. It can fit into a takeout container and absorbs condensation. This helps keep food hotter and crispier.

Hattie B’s, a Tennessee-based hot-chicken restaurant, was skeptical. After testing SavrPaks with humidity sensors, Hattie B’s now uses the packs when catering fried foods. It is also working with SavrPak on how to integrate the packs into regular takeout containers.

Hattie B’s vice-president of culinary learning and design, Brian Morris, stated that each SavrPak is less expensive than $1, but provides a better meal.

” When it comes to fried poultry, we kinda lose control at the point it leaves our place,” Morris stated. “We don’t want the experience .”

But price can still be a barrier to some companies and consumers. Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery chain, ended its multiyear partnership this year with Apeel Sciences, California. Apeel’s edible coating keeps moisture in and oxygen out and prolongs the shelf life of produce.

Apeel states that treated avocados can last for a few days more, while citrus fruits can last for several weeks. The coating is made from purified mono- and diglycerides, emulsifiers, and other common food additives.

Kroger would not disclose how much Apeel products are more expensive. Apeel wouldn’t disclose the average price premium of produce coated with its coating, as it varies from food distributor to grocer. Apeel claims that its research has shown that customers are willing to pay more if the produce lasts longer. Apeel says it is still in discussions with Kroger about future technology.

There’s another hurdle in coming up with innovative ways to preserve food. Every food product has its biological makeup and handling requirements.

” “There is no single major change that will improve the situation,” said Randy Beaudry from the Michigan State University’s horticulture department.

Beaudry stated that some projects have failed because of the complexity. He recalls working with a large packaging company to create a container that would prevent the growth of fungus in tomatoes. To make the science work, the tomatoes needed to be screened and then oriented stem-up inside each container. The project was eventually scrapped.

Beaudry stated that it is also difficult to determine which technology is best because startups don’t always share their data or formulas with outside researchers.

Some businesses find it easier to rely on established technology, but in new ways. Chicago-based Hazel Technologies, which was founded in 2015, sells 1-methylcyclopropene, or 1-MCP, a gas that has been used for decades to delay the ripening process in fruit. The compound, which is non-toxic according to the EPA, is usually stored in sealed storage rooms to prevent the production of ethylene (a plant hormone).

But Hazel is the real hero. A sachet about the size of a sugar packet can slowly release 1-MCP in a box of produce.

Mike Mazie, the facilities and storage manager at BelleHarvest, a large apple packing facility in Belding, Michigan, ordered around 3,000 sachets this year. They were used to fill in surplus bins that wouldn’t fit in the gas-sealed rooms.

“If a bushel can last you another week, why not?,” he said. “It absolutely makes a difference.”

The science is promising but it’s only part of the solution, said Yvette Cabrera, the director of food waste for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She said that most food waste occurs at the residential level. She suggested that reducing portion sizes, purchasing smaller quantities of food, and improving date labels accuracy could have more impact than technology.

“Overall, as a society we don’t value food the way it should be valued,” Cabrera stated.


AP National Writer and Visual Journalist Martha Irvine contributed from Belding, Michigan.


This story has been corrected to show that food waste startups raised $4.8 billion in 2021, 30% more than they raised in 2020, not $300 billion in 2021, double the amount raised in 2020.

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