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Food Safety and Food Waste - How IoT can solve both problems

by Alex Brisbourne
04/26/2016

How the Internet-of-Things can help keep the World fed

One of my favorite expressions—one that serves as an elegantly simple reminder in so many situations—is “Waste not, want not.” Plain in sentiment, but complex in execution, to be sure.

When it comes to the business of food, however, the sentiment rises to a level of “words to live by,” more than a mere reminder or suggestion. Population growth is not slowing down, expected to rise to nine billion by 2050, and very real questions are being asked about whether or not the world can produce enough food at affordable prices to keep widespread poverty and hunger at bay.

The issue cuts to two key areas that simply must be made less prevalent, and it so happens that technologies built upon the Internet-of-Things are primed to play a significant role in affecting change. They are:

"Food Waste" and "Food Safety"

As the often irreverent and always inciting John Oliver informed us last year, food waste in developed nations has grown to comically high proportions. To hear the Natural Resources Defense Council tell it, as much as 40 percent of food produced in the United States never gets eaten. That totals out to about 20 pounds of food, per person, per month, going straight to the dumpster. 

And if you view that stat up against another, that nearly 50 million Americans lived in a “food insecure” household in 2013, the juxtaposition should ring alarm bells for any human being with an ounce of empathy in their bones. This kind of discrepancy is simply not acceptable, or sustainable.

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Watch John Oliver clip

So, what does the IoT have to do with it? Certainly, the causes of food waste are multifactorial, but the good news, if you can call it that, is that the lion’s share of waste can be attributed to inefficient supply chains. In so many cases, goods do not arrive on store shelves until it is far too close to the “sell by” date, and thus ends up getting glanced over by consumers and discarded.

With modern sensor technology, this is a relatively simple problem to solve. Sensors affixed to pallets or individual products packages open the door to stringent oversight of these items as they make their journey through the supply chain, from farms or factories to wholesale locations, and on to retail distribution. By keeping closer tabs, the theory goes, it will be possible to close loops in transit and storage time, and thus lengthen the time these products spend on actual store shelves, exposed to consumers and available for purchase, before the expiry date arrives.

More to the point, if we can better track these products en route to the stores, it stands to reason we can also track more precisely how often they get purchased, and stores can make cleaner decisions about inventory and back stock. If only a “just exactly perfect” volume of goods make it to the shelves to meet demand, then by rule there is less chance of spoilage and waste. Data begets intelligence. 

On the other side of the coin, there’s a shockingly near-daily occurrence of late of national foodstuff recalls. Big scares like Chipotle and Kraft grab the headlines, but a jaunt to Foodsafety.org quickly reveals there have been no fewer than 20 recalls this month alone, by companies running the gamut from Whole Foods Market to Hormel to Garden of Life.

It turns out that temperature—or, more specifically, the ability to maintain a consistent temperature throughout transport—has the biggest impact on food safety as it makes its way from production to the grocery store or restaurant table. That said, with IoT-connected devices growing more and more conducive as a means to keep tabs on the condition and quality of food as it’s produced, transported, stored and prepared, the ground has been laid for better control over ensuring these products stay safe, and certainly for preventing unsafe products from making into circulation; the data can reveal when and where something goes wrong to compromise the product, and it can be dealt with right then and there.

It goes without saying, of course, that better moment-by-moment visibility of food during transport translates into a safer food chain. If the food industry can eliminate incidents of having to recall entire lots of food due to a glitch along the way, it will also cut down on the potential for waste. Two birds with one stone.