Zest Labs fights food waste by routing pallets according to real-time freshness
The solution, caled Zest Fresh, involves IoT sensors placed in pallets of fruit or vegetables as soon as they are harvested and a "freshness metric" to determine the remaining shelf life, which can vary significantly between each one.
With this information, companies can better manage inventories and deliveries. For instance, pallets with lesser shelf life can be sent to closer stores while those with more shelf life can be sent further away.
Zest Labs - which is a subsidiary of Ecoark Holdings - says the technology can improve freshness for customers and quickly increase retailers' produce department margins, which ultimately benefits growers and distributors as well.
Speaking with Fresh Fruit Portal, the company's vice president of marketing, Kevin Payne, says the use of the latest sensory technology, machine learning and predictive analytics provides a proactive unique freshness management solution in the agtech space.
"There are a lot of solutions coming out on the market that extend shelf life or repurpose waste. Our goal is all about preventing or eliminating waste," he said.
The IoT sensors are small devices about the size of a deck of cards which measure variables like temperature and humidity, which are most relevant in determining remaining shelf life.
Payne explained that on a recent project involving table grapes being shipped from California to a Midwestern retailer, Zest Labs found that different pallets of fruit had as much as 16 days variability in shelf life, ranging from three to 19 days.
Visual inspection alone is not sufficient to determine a product's freshness, he added, making the technology an important tool.
"By putting the IoT sensors in each pallet when they are harvested we can calculate dynamically what is the remaining shelf life of each pallet and then implement a something called intelligent routing of pallets," he said.
The this is the company's "freshness metric" called the ZIPR (Zest Intelligent Pallet Routing) code.
"Say we determine strawberries have 12 days of total storage capacity, by tracking the conditions of that pallet of strawberries from the time it's harvested through pre-cooling, processing and handling, shipping to the distribution center and ultimately to the retail store, we can identify that pallet A may have 11 days of shelf life when it leaves the supplier and pallet B may have six days," he said.
"We would then route those pallets accordingly so that every pallet reaches its destination with sufficient freshness to meet the retailer's requirements."
According to Zest Labs, one-third of food delivered to retail goes to waste, half of which is being discarded by the grocer.
Payne says the technology can reduce retailers' food waste by 50% and "very quickly" increase profit margins on produce by 6%, which in turn should translate to less price pressure on their growers and suppliers.
He noted this was especially important nowadays with the changing market environment.
"The industry for decades has said 'waste just happens' ... and that cost was just factored into their business," he said.
"But now the retailers are seeing new low-cost competitors coming in, they're seeing increased freight costs, they're seeing new consumer buying preferences for things like online and home delivery - they're facing an extremely dynamic market situation and so having them throw away food which directly hits their bottom line is a cost which they're increasingly not able to afford."
Blockchain technology can also be integrated into the solution, which can provide an additional benefit in terms of transparency and traceability, he said.
In addition to the sustainability and financial benefits from the retailer end of the supply chain, Payne said the technology can help growers understand which of their farm processes and protocols are being adhered to and how they can best allocate resources.
Since the solution's commercial launch last year, Zest Labs has already started working with a number of companies such as Hy-Vee, Western Precooling and various growers.
Payne said that in the produce industry, demand is highest for the most perishable of products like berries, grapes, lettuces and leafy greens.
Currently, the company is focused on the U.S. and Canadian markets but also works with growers in South and Central America.