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Startups use tech to tackle food waste

Article-Startups use tech to tackle food waste

From invisible coatings that extend the shelf-life of fruit and vegetables to electronic labels that give real-time information on meat freshness, startups are harnessing food tech to reduce the world’s billion-ton food waste problem.

Keeping food looking and tasting fresh after harvest or slaughter, particularly when it has been transported hundreds or even thousands of kilometres before reaching the final consumer, is a challenge and many of the food industry’s commonly used solutions are not sustainable.

Coatings applied to fruit and vegetables to slow down ripening are made from synthetic wax – far from clean label – while cold-chain storage is expensive and energy-consuming. In many parts of the world, the plastic packaging that keeps food fresh is not recycled.

What’s more, these measures are not completely effective in keeping food fresh. Food waste is still a major global problem, and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that one-third of all food produced is either lost or wasted – equivalent to 1.3 billion tonnes a year. This, at a time when world hunger still exists, and the earth’s resources are being stretched by a growing global population.

With global demand for food set to increase as a result of a growing global population, some companies have made it their mission to develop clean label and sustainable solutions. 

Sweden’s Innoscentia and Israel’s Sufresca, for instance, have made it the final of the 2020 Startup Innovation Challenge for developing innovative solutions that reduce food loss and waste from the farm to the fork.

Innoscentia: Traditional expiry dates are based on guesstimates

Harnessing its knowledge of chemistry and printed electronics, Innoscentia has developed analogue and digital labels that give consumers clear and up-to-date information on the freshness and safety of meat products, preventing unnecessary waste.

The company’s CEO, Erik Månsson, said:

“The static expiry date labelling system causes huge amounts of food waste, which results in economic and environmental losses. Billions of animals are bred, fed and slaughtered every year only to be thrown away. It is estimated that $20 billion worth of meat is wasted yearly due to the static expiry labelling system alone, causing 206 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.”

“Innoscentia introduces an alternative; a dynamic expiry system. By measuring and indicating the actual food status in real time, we can unlock lost shelf life and drastically reduce the financial and environmental costs of food waste.”

“[Our] vision is to unlock the full lifespan of our food and eliminate all food waste caused by date labelling and faulty handling.”

The Malmö-headquartered startup has decided to initially focus on the Nordic and European meat and poultry industry – this is the most urgent from a financial and environmental perspective, it says – but it intends to expand to other foods and regions in the future.

“Our labels are probably still a complement to the current expiry date system in three years. But if we’re looking further ahead, it is highly unlikely that the obsolete static expiry date system is still in use when we have superior technology that shows the actual status instead of guesstimates.”


Sufresca: ‘Helping create a plastic-free world’

Israeli startup Sufresca, meanwhile, has developed emulsion-type edible coatings that keep fruit and vegetables fresher for longer.

Odourless and tasteless, the breathable and invisible coatings are less than 0.1mm thick and  are made primarily of water, glazing agents, emulsifiers, stabilizers, and acidity regulators.

Sufresca says it can prolong shelf life by several weeks, reduce produce weight loss over time and maintain colour, firmness and a generally fresh appearance. The startup has already developed coatings for tomato, cucumber, pepper, mango and avocado, and more are under development.

“Our mission is to facilitate better global horticulture practices, where our cost-effective and eco-friendly edible coatings are available for all perishables […] helping create a plastic-free world, where costly food loss and waste is a thing of the past,” said the company’s CEO, Efrat Ferri.

The fact that farmers apply the coatings immediately after harvest and without the use of special equipment means they can be used in developing regions where food systems are fragmented, infrastructure is lacking, and rates of food loss are “mind-boggling” according to Ferri.

“When cold-chain is combined with Sufresca, the shelf-life of perishables becomes considerably longer. Its added value, however, stands out once the commodities are removed from controlled conditions. Several more weeks of shelf-life also means no need for air-freight of valuable perishables and opening up farther markets.”

Founded by Prof. Amos Nussinovitch, who is the startup’s CTO, Sufresca’s patent-protected technology was developed at the faculty of agriculture, food and environment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and licensed by the Agrinnovation, the university’s agricultural venture capital. So far, it has received funding from Israeli ag-focused Rimonim Venture Capital.

The company has also set its sights on other foods, beyond fruit and vegetables.

“The world of edible coatings is infinite, far beyond vegetables and fruits. Greater food domains, such as cheese, fish and meat, present yet an even higher scale-up potential, [and] research and development is already underway,” said Ferri.