Limiting food waste in the cold chain

Curbing food waste is vital if we are to feed the world: the cold chain has a key role in meeting this challenge says Jason Kay, (pictured) CCO, IMS Evolve.

Milton Keynes, UK: The latest UN figures suggest that the world needs to halve its food waste within the next decade in order to prevent a major crisis.

With more than two billion people experiencing moderate or severe levels of food insecurity in 2019, there needs to be a sustained effort to curb waste to ensure everyone around the world has access to enough food. One of the key areas that requires a significant transformation, is our food supply chain.

Jason Kay, CCO, IMS Evolve

Given that the global food supply chain is currently predicated on waste, ensuring a sustainable future of responsibly and ethically sourced food will require an increase in conscious action by consumers, food providers and food retailers alike.

Supply chain challenges

Altering consumer expectation and a ‘sales over sustainability’ mindset within the food supply chain is essential to achieving a model that will effectively tackle the challenge of food waste. Currently, consumers expect blemish-free goods of identical size and shape which, naturally, a sizeable proportion of fresh produce will never meet and therefore will end up going to waste.

Economic barriers also prevent suppliers from tackling the issues of food waste in the supply chain. As an industry that survives on single-digit percentage margin points, suppliers are less likely to invest huge amounts of money in technology solutions that could help to drastically increase food quality and shelf life and decrease the need for over-supply.

This isn’t because technology is not the answer, but rather because the vast upfront costs traditionally associated with such solutions can prove too high a risk for such a low margin industry. Technological solutions must demonstrate a quick return on investment, as well as showing tangible business benefits for other operational costs, such as production line efficiency, cost of asset maintenance and infrastructure upkeep, in order to enable and drive adoption from suppliers.

Additionally, the food retail sector is dominated by a small number of large key players, so manufacturers rely on one or two big contracts who make up the majority of their entire business, with little alternative choice if one falls through. This inevitably leads to waste being inherently built into the food supply chain, as suppliers often over-produce to avoid under delivery. As one example, last year these practices led to 260,000 tonnes of food and drink waste in the retail sector across the UK alone.

Digitalisation driving change

Digital transformation, or digitalisation, offers a solution to the cold chain that would significantly support the reduction in food waste. Currently, many food retailers use technology in stores to track footfall, monitor shelf levels and replenish stock. As useful as these technologies are, there are also solutions available that monitor and manage machines and assets in store to control temperature, improve asset efficiency and improve the quality of produce and the customer experience.

By collecting, monitoring and managing the huge volumes of data generated across their estates in real time, retailers can optimise their operations, significantly extend product shelf life, mitigate risk and prevent stock loss from machine failure through predictive and preventative maintenance.

Machine performance and health data can be used to detect early signs of failures, such as improper temperature control, and preventative approaches can be taken automatically and immediately – Imagine how vital this solution could be for a logistics company transporting stock over long distances.

Critically, total store digital transformation can be achieved by deploying the IoT layer over existing infrastructure, allowing huge amounts of previously unobtainable data to be gathered, monitored and translated into meaningful insights and actions.

Huge capital costs are increasingly a thing of the past, with retailers able to deploy a ‘plug and play’ approach with immediate results, meaning there is no need for costly new investments. By ensuring quality and compliance without a need to purchase additional, costly physical resources, these technological solutions can offer a frictionless, cost efficient approach to digital adoption.

Democratisation

At a macroeconomic scale, the deployment and interoperability of digital solutions has the potential to totally democratise access to the food market, which in turn could provide the catalyst to innovation needed to tackle food waste.

Without the need for high cost and high-risk initial investments, more participants can engage in the marketplace. By allowing businesses to compete on scale and price in the food supply chain without hugely expensive labour and processes, the innovations necessary to tackle food waste could be unlocked.

Individuals having access to a more flexible market allows distribution to become more aligned with innovation and ethical approaches, as consumers, retailers and suppliers have the ability to unlock new ways of doing business, free from the shackles of a consolidated market.

It is through this levelling of the playing field and increased flexibility that competition, opportunity and innovation is increased. This has the potential to dismantle current models and unlock the innovation necessary to finally defeat the challenge of food waste.

Jason Kay is CCO at IMS Evolve.

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