IoT Reduces Food Loss Through a Smarter Supply Chain

Internet of Things technologies are emerging to combat unnecessary food waste. 3D-printed shipping crates, smart packaging labels, and mobile apps are providing timely information to suppliers and consumers with the end goal of reducing food waste and conserving our natural resources.

Image credit: Zest Labs

Food waste is a global problem, and it occurs at all points in the supply chain. From harvest to shipping, about 14 percent of food is lost, much of it due to inefficient farming and shipping practices, according to the United Nations. That’s about $400 billion in food loss, and that climbs to $680 billion when you factor in retail and consumer food waste. The average US household throws out about $1,500 worth of food waste every year.

Fresh produce is available year-round, thanks to global supply chains. Flexible sticker-like sensor tags can be placed on fresh produce to measure the color, size, and shape of fruits and vegetables as they ripen, enabling farmers to know exactly when and how much to harvest.

From Farm to Fridge

But delivering fresh peaches and bananas to snow-covered locales in the dead of winter comes at a cost. Spoilage invariably occurs during harvest and shipping, especially when produce is damaged. To thwart damage, some suppliers are using 3D-printed produce crates for harvest and transport. Having a single crate eliminates the need for transferring produce from one vessel to another for shipping, which reduces the likelihood that produce will bruise, tear, or incur other blights that render them unsaleable. In some cases, those plastic crates are used to display produce in the store and are returned empty to the suppliers, creating a closed loop of sustainability.

Sustainable crates or not, food is still lost during transport. IoT sensors can alleviate that. Zest Labs has developed Zest Fresh, an IoT-based tag that is inserted into a pallet when produce is harvested. The system uses temperature sensors, predictive analytics, and machine learning to determine its shelf life on a per-pallet basis.

The company created the Zest Intelligent Pallet Routing Code, or ZIPR Code, which allows suppliers and retailers to optimize shipping routes to preserve product freshness. For example, a pallet of produce with a 12-day shelf life could be shipped across the country, but a pallet with a shorter shelf life would be routed to a local market.

A Bear Market

London-based BlakBear has developed a paper-based label with integrated sensors and an embedded RFID chip. Placed within the packaging, the label absorbs and measures the gasses emitted when food starts to spoil. By measuring ammonia, the tag can estimate the shelf life of packaged meats and fish.

“The sensor can measure ammonia gas down to 200 parts per billion, which is more than 100 times better than the best human noses,” says BlakBear CEO Max Grell. The label is more accurate than the common “sniff test” and never stops working.

storage container with sensors and mobile app showing data about food

Image credit: BlakBear

Data from the BlakBear label is sent to the cloud. Suppliers can use these tags to get real-time data and tracking information as perishables are shipped from the farm. If products are declining sooner than expected, they can isolate and address the problem (a malfunctioning refrigeration truck, for example) or adjust shipping routes as needed.

Retailers use a mobile app or Web-based dashboard to view the BlakBear data in real-time and see the estimated shelf life of a given product. Armed with that data, retailers can run promotions or discount food to move it off the shelf.

Consumers also can access the data, which can clear up confusion around use-by, sell-by, and expiration dates. Through an app, consumers can receive a notification that the chicken they purchased needs to be cooked; it can even provide a link to recipes. The BlakBear label is being tested in the UK and the US, and the company is developing a fridge container with a similar type of label for home use, dubbed the HoneyBox.