Nearly 40% of U.S.-produced food is not consumed, according to a 2018 report by The Center for Biological Diversity. In addition, retailers are named as the largest culprits when it comes to food waste. IBM estimates that supermarkets tossed about 16 billion pounds of food last year alone. The technology company is working to get more involved in this problem and is holding the Food Waste Developer Challenge in an effort to find solutions to help reduce waste.
“Often, innovation comes from unexpected places. IBM’s sponsorship of the Food Waste Developer Challenge encourages developers to use their unique expertise toward solving some of society’s hardest problems,” says John Walicki, senior technical staff member, CTO IoT developer advocacy at IBM. “We hope to ignite an open community of impassioned developers to create solutions that improve the food supply chain and reduce food waste.” In a Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Walicki explains the important role that technology could play in stopping the ongoing food waste problem.
Food Safety Tech:What are the biggest challenges in addressing food waste?
John Walicki: One big issue is that the data around a product’s age, origin and journey lies with different parties or isn’t being tracked at all. Without shared visibility into these product attributes, at all stages of their life, it’s hard for grocers and producers to optimize how they sell and fulfill each item to guard against waste. And while less waste has a direct impact for the bottom line, more than ever, it has just as big of an impact in the mind of the increasingly belief-driven customer. According the 2018 Edelman Brand Survey, nearly two-thirds of consumers now choose, switch to or boycott a company based on its stand on societal issues, up from 51% in 2017.
FST: What is the goal of IBM’s Food Waste Developer Challenge?
Walicki: The goal of the challenge is to excite and crowd-source the minds of the developer community to create creative cloud-based, AI-enabled solutions for reducing food waste. For example, developers in the challenge have access to open-source code patterns for IoT, blockchain, AI-enabled bots, and more from IBM they can leverage in creating a solution. Nearly all of these capabilities are available for free on the IBM Cloud.
FST: Where are the key areas in which the food industry should be collaborating to solve these issues?
Walicki: The supply chain is the area [that] a lot of food retailers and producers are looking at. Better visibility into where the food is coming from, when, and its conditions are key in understanding when food will perish, etc. This involves collaboration from every partner all the way from the farm to when the customer purchases the product. The food chain is such a connected eco-system today. It’s really a team game in terms of generating solutions.
In addition, retailers are working to get better visibility into real-time on-hand inventories, so they can better know exactly how much of a certain product they have, so they can take prescriptive action if needed. More and more this type of insight requires the integration of data across many systems, both cloud-based and not. This means tight collaboration for food retailers internally and with suppliers.
Sustainability is a word that you’ll hear a lot these days, especially as industries try to become more eco-friendly. The food industry has been lagging behind in the world of sustainability, and in order to keep up with national and international food demands, it is difficult to implement the kind of change that is necessary to make the world a little greener. However, that doesn’t mean that food companies shouldn’t try. The following are some sustainability strategies that might be easier to implement in the food industry.
While the majority of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, only about 3% of that water is drinkable—and 2 of that 3% is frozen in the planet’s glaciers and ice caps. This is why water conservation is so important. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), roughly 39% of fresh water used in the United States is used to irrigate crops.
Switching from flood irrigation with sprinklers to drip irrigation can reduce water usage.
Wastewater reuse is also a new technique that is gaining traction in the food industry. While it isn‘t practical in all situations due to the technology needed to remove chemicals and impurities from the wastewater, it can help reduce water waste and water use in the food industry. Simply reviewing water usage and switching to procedures that are less water-intensive can save a company money and reduce its overall water usage.
Natural Pest Control
Pesticides and fertilizers are among some of the most dangerous chemicals in the food industry. For largescale operations, however, they are necessary to ensure a large and healthy harvest. Some companies, such as Kemin Industries, are shunning these typical processes in favor of more sustainable options.
“Our mission at Kemin is to improve the quality of life for more than half the world’s population, and we believe sustainability plays an important role in our work,” said Dr. Chris Nelson, president and CEO of Kemin Industries. “Our FORTIUM line of rosemary-extract-based ingredients uses Kemin-grown rosemary for maximum effectiveness against color and flavor degradation. Kemin is the only rosemary supplier that is certified SCS Sustainably Grown, and we’re one of the world’s largest growers of vertically integrated rosemary.”
Vertical integration doesn’t have anything to do with how the rosemary is grown. In the agriculture industry, it means Kemin owns the entire supply chain for its rosemary, from field to processing to distribution.
“We use botanicals—spearmint, oregano, marigold and potato, in addition to rosemary—in our other products as well,” continued Nelson. “As an ingredient manufacturer, we understand the value of good suppliers. When the planet is supplying us with the ingredients we use in our products, it’s important to us that we are responsible in our growing practices.”
Distribution is one of the biggest problems when it comes to creating eco-friendly and sustainable supply chains. Upwards of 70% of the products in the United States are transported by truck, and each of those trucks generates CO2 and greenhouse gases.
There are two plans of attack for sustainability in food distribution: Reducing the distance food needs to travel, and upgrading trucks to use greener fuel options like biodiesel or electricity, such as the ones Tesla is offering.
Reducing the emissions created by tractor-trailers could help make the entire process a bit more sustainable, although it would require a large investment to upgrade the distribution process.
Back to Their Roots
It’s only in recent decades that agriculture has started being sustainable in an effort to keep up with the demands of the consumer. By going back to our roots and focusing on farming techniques that promote things like soil health—by rotating crops instead of using artificial fertilizers—and lowering water use and pollution, agriculture can become sustainable once again.
Modern agricultural techniques are detrimental, both to the environment and to the people who work there. These methods ensure we have enough food to supply consumers, but they lead to soil depletion and groundwater contamination. In addition to this, it can also lead to the degradation of rural communities that would normally be centered on farm work. That’s because corporate farms focus on quotas and large harvests without the community angle.
These commercial farms also cost more to run, and many have poor conditions for farmworkers because of the harsh chemicals used to kill pests and fertilize depleted topsoil.
Farm numbers have dropped since the end of World War II, with corporate farms taking the place of smaller family farms. While the number of farms has dropped, the remaining farms have increased in size. The average farm in 1875 was roughly 150 acres, and there were more than 4 million of them. Today, less than half that number remains, but the average size of the farms has increased to more than 450 acres.
Sustainability is a popular buzzword right now, but it’s a lot more important than most people believe. Switching to sustainable practices, whether that means changing production, distribution or anything in between, will help ensure the food industry can keep fresh, healthy food on our table for decades to come without damaging the environment. Sustainability is something that should be adopted by every industry, especially agriculture.
In a deal that publicly began months ago, it’s now official: Bayer is buying Monsanto for a whopping $66 billion ($128 per share). The all-cash transaction is expected to generate synergies of nearly $1.5 billion in three years, according to Bayer. The combined companies will have an annual pro-forma R&D budget of about €2.5 billion.
“We are fully committed to helping solve one of the biggest challenges of society – and that is how to feed a massively growing world population in an environmentally sustainable manner,” said Werner Baumann, CEO of Bayer AG in a video statement. “What we do is good for consumers. We help to produce sufficient, safe, healthy and affordable food. It is also good for our growers. Because they have better choices to increase yields in a sustainable way.”
Hugh Grant, chairman and CEO of Monsanto stated, “we are entering a new era in Agriculture – one in which growers are demanding new solutions and technologies to be more profitable and to be even more sustainable. The vision for this combination was born out of that desire to help farmers grow more with less. Together with Bayer, we are going to be able to offer growers even better solutions, faster.”
The worldwide food supply will be under intense strain, as the population is anticipated to grow to nearly 10.5 billion by 2100. A new position paper released by Wageningen University & Research (WUR) stresses the need to address five key challenges confronting the food and agricultural industry:
Food nutrition and security
Health and safe food
WUR is maintaining the position that the Common Agricultural Policy, an initiative of the European Union, should be revised to emphasize an urgency for sustainability rather than agricultural productivity goals. It identifies the following innovations, which would also lead to a more integrated agricultural and food policy, to address the above challenges:
Digitization and big data
Energy and bio-based transitions
“We need a policy that addresses the consumer concerns on the food chain and admits that the actors in the food chain are much bigger than in the past, including most farms,” said Krijn Poppe, Research Manager & Senior Economist at Wageningen Economic Research in a press release.” ‘One size fits all’ will not do in a more complex Europe; to keep it simple and affordable we need a combination of several targeted instruments.”
WUR also proposes five new pillars for a successful Common Agriculture & Food Policy:
Income support and risk management to guarantee food security
Public issues and eco-system services
Rural development to support innovation and quality of rural life
Consumer food policy and consumers themselves, retail and food industry in effort to push a healthier diet and healthier climate
Water consumption is a significant concern in the agricultural industry. As farmers face the challenges of long-lasting droughts and high prices for water use, finding ways to conserve water without threatening crops is a high priority.
Mist Labs has developed a technology platform called AgPulse that allows farmers to track their plants and irrigation systems. The technology consists of a set of wireless devices that can be deployed throughout the farm (or more than one location). It tracks data such as irrigation flow information, how much water is going into plants, and how much sun is hitting the plants. The information is fed through a web dashboard in real time, and allows the tracking of historical information for analysis of trends.
Matt Kresse, CEO of Mist Labs, sat down with Food Safety Tech to discuss the AgPulse platform, which also recently won the Proto Labs Cool Idea! Award.
Food Safety Tech: You mentioned that Mist Labs is targeting selling to farmers mainly in the California area. Are you targeting farms of a specific size?
Matt Kresse: Our target initially is large farms, which happened to be first folks with whom we were connected. It might have something to do with the fact that very large farms often have researchers as part of their staff who are most familiar with how to make use of the new data sources that we’re providing. They have also challenges, such as high-level managers who are overseeing many farms, sometimes multiple farms not even in California but worldwide. We’re addressing [a problem they face]—they’re giving prescriptions for how much watering their fields should be getting in the weeks and months ahead. And then there are actual field workers who are doing the surprisingly manual process of opening and closing valves by hand for irrigating blocks on their field, and they’re recording everything on pieces of paper and reporting back. We’re finding that when they do small scale measurements using [instruments] similar to a flow meter and moisture sensors, there’s a large amount of discrepancies between how much they’re prescribing to put on the field and h w much they’re actually putting on the field—it’s anywhere from a 10%–50% discrepancy. That’s’ a problem and can lead to water waste and negative crop outcomes. Particularly with types of crops like fruit and nut crops, if you over-water, it can ruin a crop due to altering the flavor in an unideal way.
Food Safety Tech: Using AgPulse, what’s the technology differentiator versus other current methods?
Kresse: There are not a lot of competitors doing specifically what we’re doing. At best, farms will have a flow meter solution installed on the water main—a large water pipe about 3–4 inches—and that provides water for a very large area or the entire farm. But that doesn’t give you a good sense for how much the individual rows/plants are getting—and that’s what’s really important for the farmer. Our first device can be installed directly in the row, so it connects with the micro-irrigation tubing (it’s very compact). There are other flow meters sized so they can connect with a half-inch or three-quarter inch drip tube, but ours is a really low-profile design so that it can be easily connected with tubing. It avoids a problem when [farmers are] trying to bulk their flow meters in individual rows, [which can cause them to] get wrapped up with the harvesting machinery, and get ripped out, ruining the devices at the end of every year.
The other thing that no one else is doing: The device has a solar panel to track the solar energy that’s hitting the plant. The growers are placing the device under the canopies of the plant. We’re doing mostly trees and vines. Farmers are very interested in tracking the canopies of the plant over course of the season. This will impact how much they choose to water, when to fertilize, and when to harvest. Messing this up can really impact quality of crop.
Our device is permanently underneath the canopy and sees how much sun information is captured in real time. As the canopy expands and the sun moves over the field over the course of the day, we can track that sun-to-shade ratio. The shade ratio will get bigger as the canopy expands. It gives a nice metric to compare March to July, for example. This is a brand new [feature], and something growers are as excited about as we are—having the real-time flow information.
“The device combines providing data on irrigation and tracking the plant growth. It’s not just a flow meter.” –Matt Kresse, CEO, Mist Labs
Food Safety Tech: How does the use of this technology simplify the entire process for growers?
Kresse: Growers we deal with are sophisticated and are trying to apply deficit irrigation strategies: You water more during an early part of the season and then later in the season, so you cut water at a specific time—it’s what they call applying water stress. That [process] pulls in nutrients from the canopy to the fruit and improves the quality of the fruit by a lot. But doing this requires a precise understanding of how much water is in the plant and being applied to the plant, and how much water stress it’s under. Right now, it’s a manual process, both the watering and the reporting of the watering, so any discrepancies impacts their ability to apply deficit irrigation strategies successfully.
We’re shining a light on this whole process and making it very simple, and reporting out is completely automated for them, so this will greatly simplify the ability to successfully implement deficit irrigation and it’s also in a scalable fashion. If they want to do in another field, it’s just a matter of installing a couple more devices, and the installation process takes minutes.
We can also alert the farmer to leakages or blockages, because we’re tracking the watering over long periods of time. When there’s a sudden increase in the flow rate (or a decrease) that means something most likely happened to the watering structure itself. Leaks can often affect more than 1000 acres—a leak in the corner of your farm could go unnoticed for a while, which might ruin that portion of the crop and is wasting a lot water. [Combine] that with tracking the actual health of the watering structure and the ability to employ deficit irrigation across the entire farm, and we’re comfortable saying that farmers can see about a 20% water savings and improvement of crop yields by around 10%.
With water consumption increasing on every continent, the agricultural industry has an important issue in front of them: Will there continue to be enough water of suitable quality for agricultural production for the foreseeable future? Daniel Snow, director of the Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory at University of Nebraska, posed this question at the IAFP annual meeting earlier this month.
Worldwide, it is estimated that the availability of freshwater (annual per capita) is just 1700 m3. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, when this figure drops below 1000 m3 it puts pressure on not only on the economy but also on human health.
The amount of freshwater available for food production is limited (less than 3% of the world’s water is fresh). Further complicating the matter is the fact that this water comes from many different sources, and emerging contaminants are potentially everywhere. “We don’t really understand the effect [of these contaminants] on the environment or on human health,” said Snow. “We know the compounds occur in the water and likely occur in the food supply, but we don’t really understand the implications.”
According to Snow, there is very little regulation around water used for irrigation. Top concerns surrounding emerging contaminants include:
Water reuse. Recycled wastewater contains traces of the following contaminants, which accumulate over time:
Xenobiotics (organic compounds)
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria/germs. Up to 90% of some of the antibiotics excreted are not metabolized by animals and humans
Endocrine disrupters (steroids—natural and artificial in running water)
Pharmaceuticals (both human and veterinary)
Arsenic (namely related to rice production). The element is not only found in soil in Asia but also in soil in certain parts of the United States
Co-occurrence of nitrate and uranium in ground water. There is growing evidence that uranium is being mobilized in water and one study has shown that uranium is readily taken up in food crops
It’s not all doom and gloom, said Snow. The upside to the issue: “We know enough now that we can start to understand the system and hopefully control the contaminants when producing food,” he said. The larger concern is determining which emerging contaminants pose the most significant problem.
The labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters has been holding nationwide protests at Chipotle locations this month, taking issue with one of the restaurant chain’s suppliers. The supplier at the focus of the demonstrations is California-based produce company Taylor Farms, which supplies tomatoes and peppers to Chipotle, according to Teamsters.
“Over the past five years, Taylor Farms has had more than 20 food recalls for problems such as Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli. In November 2015, Taylor Farms products containing celery and sold at Costco and other retail outlets were recalled for possible E. coli 0157:H7 contamination,” according to a Teamster news release. “At Taylor Farms’ plant in Tracy, Calif., the company has also committed safety and health violations and violations of laws that protect workers’ rights. Recently, the company settled extensive labor rights violations that involved payments of $267,000 to illegally terminated workers and a required posting in which the company promises to never again violate a long list of employee rights.”
The Teamsters protested at 12 Chipotle locations across the country, following 30 previous protests at Chipotle over the past several months.
Teamster Vice President Rome Aloise points the finger at Chipotle for allowing Taylor Farms to “have a total disregard for consumers’ and workers’ health and safety, as well as workers’ rights,” he said. “Chipotle claims to serve ‘Food With Integrity’, but where’s the integrity when it turns a blind eye to its supplier’s behavior? Chipotle must not cut and run – which would hurt Taylor Farms workers – it must carry out its social responsibility and demand Taylor Farms treat workers fairly and with respect.”
Taylor Farms has not released a statement addressing the protests.
Today the USDA announced that is providing $6 million in funding for research surrounding antimicrobial resistance. Available via the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, funded applications must tackle one or more areas:
Development of new systems approaches to investigate the ecology of microbial resistance microbes and gene reservoirs in the environment in animals, crops, food products or farm-raised aquaculture products
Development, evaluation and implementation of effective and sustainable resources and strategies. This approach includes alternative practices, techniques, technologies or tools that mitigate emergence, spread or persistence of antimicrobial resistant pathogens
Identify critical control points for mitigating antimicrobial resistance in pre- and post-harvest food production
Design training, education, and outreach resources (including web-based) that are adaptable by users across the food chain (from policy makers to producers and processors to retailers and consumers)
Design and conduct studies that evaluate the impact and efficacy of proposed research, education and extension/outreach interventions on antimicrobial resistance across the food chain
Across the board, increased employee awareness and training has become a big issue in food safety. The foodborne illness outbreaks that hit Chipotle Mexican Grill has put retail and restaurant establishments on high alert, yet this is just another example of the reactive culture in which we operate, according to Matt Schiering, vice president and general manager at Sani Professional.
Food Safety Tech recently hit the road with Schiering and John Caton, regional sales manager at Sani Professional, to experience first hand how one company is communicating its message to customers. Breaking with tradition has been an important part of promoting cleaner technology: The use of the rag and bucket as a means to clean both the front of the house (tables, chairs, counters, etc.) as well as the back of restaurants and retail establishments, while still fairly common, has outlived its effectiveness, and frankly, says Schiering, “screams unclean”. Caton and Schiering continued the conversation with their customers about how using disposable wipes for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection helps prevent the spread of contamination, along with the cost savings associated with using such products. The company takes a multi-prong approach to promoting awareness among its current and potential clients, from deploying a sales force that directly interacts with quality assurance and food safety professionals in establishments to offering how advances in sustainable technology can help them stay ahead of the curve to driving consumer advocacy.
Food Safety Tech: How is Sani Professional raising the level awareness of the disadvantages of the traditional cleaning method (the rag and bucket method) in the retail environment?
Matt Schiering: There are a few ways to raise the level of awareness. The first and foremost is “feet on the street”. We’ve deliberately moved toward a direct-to-customer sales force, which gives us the opportunity to interface directly with QA, food safety and operations to show them a simpler, more efficient, more effective, and guest appealing way versus the traditional rag and bucket. The first win is one for the user (the employees of a given establishment), because associates have shown us time and time again that they do not like the mixing and measuring, and the errors that are often associated with that process. They don’t like the dirty rag itself—having to fish it out of the bowl and then present it or be seen with it in the front of the establishment. It’s a win for the operator (the manager), because with our system, there’s no longer any heightened heart rate when the health inspector shows up. One of the most common violations is the water in the buckets being out of spec or the rags themselves not being inside the bucket per regulation. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a win for the guest. Think about your own restaurant experiences. Guests don’t want to see or be confronted with a greyish brown rag [that is used to] wipe a table, then wipe a seat, then wipe an adjacent table. It just screams unclean.
As we talk about the evolution in perception, away from traditional methods, we believe that speaking directly to the consumer has to play a role. There has to be a degree of consumer-driven advocacy for a better way. – Matt Schiering
FST: Regarding employee training, how should retailers be more proactive in ensuring their employees are engaging in proper food safety practices and aren’t spreading foodborne illnesses?
Schiering: It varies by chain. Unfortunately, we live in a reactive culture—and that goes well beyond the restaurant industry.
Oftentimes a problem precedes a protocol or other means of addressing said problem. Chipotle is one example: They’ve taken an exhaustive look at restructuring their food safety protocols as a result of a myriad of foodborne illness-related issues that they suffered in the preceding months. The [retailers] who are doing it best are the ones who build it into their establishment in the first place where it’s not predicated by some sort of problem. That involves training materials, in-service lessons, and online training (i.e., ServSafe certifications). Waffle House, for example, has Waffle House University where food safety is a key component to that system.
We envision ourselves as part of that process. We take a microcosm—the notion of proper food handling, prevention of cross contamination related foodborne illness—and provide an innovative and easy-to-use solution, and all the training and collateral materials associated with the solution that explain the proper use. We also provide test kits so that if the health inspector wants an in-the-moment proof that our product is doing what the label says it does, [the retailer] can provide that at a moments notice. It becomes more of a service proposition than simply a product-driven solution.
FST: Where do you see sustainable products fitting into the space?
Schiering: This also boils down to education, because the perception of disposables is that they’re wasteful, when in fact they needn’t be any more costly than existing solutions.
If you’re using a linen service, there’s a cost associated with renting towels, but there’s a higher cost associated with wasting towels. So if a towel ends up in a gym bag or in the trash because of overuse and/or abuse, there’s a significant upcharge for not returning that towel to the rental agency. That’s what we call the hidden cost or the dirty little secret of rag and bucket sanitizing. When you factor that in, and everyone [retailers] experiences that type of loss, and you look at the fact that sanitizing wipes kill pathogens trapped in the wipe as well as whatever it is coming into contact with at the surface, thereby enabling it to be used on multiple surfaces without causing cross contamination—the cost aligns very closely. And of course it’s a more value-added guest experience than a dirty rag being used from table to table, which is not preventing cross contamination.
Speaking to the environmental piece: At the moment, we’re actually fairly well ahead of the industry. It varies chain to chain—some chains are doing a better job than others, because it’s part of their corporate culture. But by providing solutions that are leveraging either recyclable substrates or compostable substrates, we provide greater opportunity to reduce the environmental impact often associated with disposable products. If a retailer is working with a waste management partner that can handle industrial compostable products or non-solid state recyclables, we have solutions that are appropriate for those operations, so that we’re not just adding to landfills but rather essentially recycling and/or regenerating the products that are being used, and at no greater cost.
Most retailers haven’t gotten there yet. It speaks directly to corporate culture and corporate mission of the end user. We deliberately target customers who are a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to “green technology or “green behavior”. And so when the rest of the industry catches up, we’re more than ready to serve them with products that meet those needs.
FST: Where do consumers fit into the picture, especially has industry moves away from traditional methods in food safety?
Schiering: About a decade ago, consumers started demanding that retailers like Walmart, Target, and local grocers provide a means of sanitizing shopping carts when they walk into their local retail establishments. There were myriad news reports about the germs and potential for contamination and illness arising from the often used and rarely cleaned implements—these vehicles for placing your groceries. We answered the call a decade ago, and at one time it was a significant piece of our business. It continues to be a marketplace we serve, albeit a much commoditized one. But the rise in that solution would not have taken place if not for consumers advocating for a better way.
We’re starting to create a presence on Facebook and other social media outlets to remind consumers that it’s up to them in many cases to ask for, if not demand a more effective, more pleasing way of ensuring their safety in dining establishments. Unfortunately, incidents like what we saw at the large Mexican food service retailer do ultimately play a part in that consumer advocacy, albeit a negative one, because we are a reactive society. But by presenting a positive message and sharing alternatives in the absence of citing examples or shaming retailers through the problem, we believe that will be one of the keys to changing perceptions at the retail level.
The USDA has ramped up efforts to provide farmers and local producers with more money with the goal of expanding market opportunities at the local and regional level. Between 2009 and 2014, the department invested more than $800 million in more than 29,000 local and regional food businesses and infrastructure tasks, and last year alone boosted local food growth by nearly $11.7 billion, according to a recently released USDA Fact Sheet.
The investments target helping farmers and ranchers gain access to new and local markets, improving infrastructure to connect producers with new markets, and improving access to local food. Highlights of the USDA’s initiatives between 2009 and 2015 include:
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