According to the company, every hour spent in 85 degree weather reduces the shelf life of strawberries by one day. Produce packing companies and wholesalers assume they can maintain consistent conditions by harvesting in the morning or shipping berries in climate-controlled trucks but the reality, says Mehring, is actually far more variable.
Variations in the harvest, picking and packing of strawberries—even small ones—can shift the fruit’s actual shelf life. Boxes of fruit might be left outside in the heat if the facility is behind in shipping out its produce, or packed into a truck incorrectly, causing variations in storage temperature depending on how and where the fruit ends up in the truck. “What really happens,” says Mehring, “is that the sticker on the harvest case is not as meaningful [because of] the condition and processing of the crops.”
Zest uses sensors to record the conditions in which the fruit is harvested and packed. “What we do is we put a device...a wireless sensor...in the box in the field,” explains Mehring, “so that as soon as it’s harvested, we’re getting the condition of how the products are being treated...all the way through...to the retailer.” In one of its reports completed for a strawberry grower client, for example, Zest found 88.6% of 105 pallets had inaccurate freshness dating.
Zest gathers the data and then makes real-time recommendations to reduce the chance of spoiled fruit and waste. Strawberries that have less time left before they spoil, for example, could be sent to a closer destination, whereas strawberries that are less ripe can be sent further away.
Zest has to give recommendations in real time for the impact to be meaningful, explains Mehring, since the supply chain for fresh produce like strawberries is often incredibly dynamic. It’s similar to traffic in a busy city where “the traffic jam happens somewhat differently every day.” Zest provides growers with handheld devices, says Mehring, “so every job function can see what’s relevant to them and how to do the job better.”
“It’s real time information that’s converted to reports,” says Roy Garza of Eclipse Berry Farms, a California-based strawberry farm that has worked with Zest, “that helps us better manage our operation on our end.”
While Zest is focused on reducing food waste throughout the food supply chain, working with strawberry growers as well as other food wholesalers and packers, Mehring says the company’s efforts help consumers reduce waste too. Stressing the importance of “getting the consumer more consistent shelf life,” he explains, “we’ve all had the personal experience where you bought strawberries [and] the next day, you open your fridge and they’re already bad. It just underscores [the importance of] that added shelf life.”
Food waste is a problem that deserves much more attention, argues Mehring. “Day to day,” he says, “I don’t think there’s enough focus on solving the problem. But he’s also quick to point out the good news. “There’s both a business and a sustainability [benefit] for companies to get on board.” Eliminating food waste benefits the entire food system.