Imagine bananas that never go bad. To Aidan Mouat, CEO of Chicago-based Hazel Technologies, it's not so far-fetched.
His company makes a product that extends the shelf life of all sorts of produce — avocados, cherries, pears, broccoli — by slowing the chemical process that causes decay. Some of the world's largest growers are using it to send their produce longer distances or reduce how much retailers throw away, and Mouat says a consumer version could be next.
"I envision, in the next 18 months or so, literally selling a banana box to consumers," Mouat said from Hazel's growing office space at University Technology Park, a startup innovation hub on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. "You keep it on your counter, put a (Hazel) sachet in there once a month, and you have bananas that last forever."
Hazel Technologies is part of a new wave of innovation seeking to slow spoilage of produce and other perishables, which experts say is a key weapon in the battle against massive food waste in the U.S.
As much as 40% of food produced annually in the U.S., and nearly half of produce, goes uneaten, according to government estimates. While the waste happens throughout the supply chain, the vast majority of the $218 billion worth of uneaten food annually gets tossed at home or at grocery stores and restaurants, according to ReFED, a Berkeley, California-based nonprofit that seeks solutions to reduce food waste.
The average American family throws away 25% of groceries purchased, costing a family of four an estimated $1,600 annually, ReFED said. U.S. supermarkets lose $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, uneaten food is the No. 1 component of landfills and squanders the water and energy used to grow and transport it.
Routing unused food to charities can help keep it out of the garbage, but solutions to prevent waste at the source, such as by extending its shelf life, "have some of the greatest economic value per ton and net environmental benefit," said Alexandra Coari, director of capital and innovation at ReFED.
Spoilage prevention packaging has the potential to divert 72,000 tons of waste and 330,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, plus save 44 billion gallons of water a year, she said.
Technology that extends shelf life has been around for a long time, but there has recently been a "huge uptick" in innovations that expand the options, helping to drive the $185 million in venture capital invested in combating food waste last year, Coari said.
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Hazel, founded in 2015 by a group of Northwestern University graduate students, has raised $18 million so far, including nearly $1 million in grants from the USDA. It has 100 clients in 12 countries in North and South America.
The company makes small sachets, the size of a salt or pepper packet included with a takeout order, that can be thrown into a box of produce to shut down the food's response to ethylene, a chemical naturally emitted by many fruits and vegetables that triggers the loss of firmness, texture and color. The sachets continuously emit a small amount of an ethylene inhibitor, changing the atmosphere in the storage box but not the food itself.
While ethylene management technology isn't new, Hazel's sachets are gaining fans because they are easy to use, whether in okra fields in Honduras or avocado packing houses in the U.S., Mouat said. The company also is working on anti-microbial reactions and will soon bring to market anti-microbial liners for packages of berries, to ward off the white fuzz.
"We can extend the shelf life of practically any perishable by targeting the specific mechanism that causes it to go bad and integrating it with the packaging that already exists today," said Mouat, who graduated from Northwestern with a doctorate in chemistry in 2016.
How much Hazel can extend the shelf life depends on the type of food. For example, tests show an unripened pear gets an extra seven to 10 days after being treated with a Hazel sachet, plus an extra three to four days once ripe, Mouat said. Testing on packaged chicken, beef, fish and pork suggests the sell-by date could be pushed back by four to six days, he said.
Mission Produce, the largest grower, packer and shipper of Hass avocados in the world, found that ripe avocados, which normally would have to be sold in two to five days once in stores, lasted seven to 10 days when treated with Hazel's product, said Patrick Cortes, senior director of business development at California-based Mission. Once they'd achieved maximum ripeness, some treated avocados kept at room temperature were still good when they were sliced two weeks later, he said.
Mission, which has developed a branded product with Hazel called AvoLast, has completed one retail trial and is about to launch two more, as well as a food service trial, Cortes said. So far he prefers it to other shelf life extension treatments the company has tested because it is easy to use.
Mission is investing in the technology to help retain the freshness of avocados that travel long cross-ocean journeys and help U.S. retailers save money by throwing fewer avocados away, Cortes said. On average U.S. retailers waste 5% of avocados, which also has an environmental impact, he said.
"We took a retailer we sell to and said, if we can reduce their shrink (wasted produce) by 2% it would be the equivalent of powering 26 homes for a year," Cortes said. "It just makes perfect sense to do the right thing."