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Brown bananas and squishy avocados no more? Food tech could keep your produce from going bad

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

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, Calif.-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.

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.

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