A startup in California, backed by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has created a product that is doubling the shelf-life of citrus, avocados, and other produce.
Kroger announced this week the company will start selling longer-lasting avocados to reduce waste and save money. The avocados will be treated with a plant-based solution called Apeel, that helps slow down decay. The fruit will be available in about 1,100 of Kroger’s nearly 2,800 stores. The grocery chain also plans to sell longer-lasting asparagus and limes in a Cincinnati pilot program.
When treated with the coating, a colorless, odorless powder that is mixed with water and sprayed, brushed or otherwise applied to lock in moisture and block oxygen, the produce should last at least twice as long as regular avocados.
According to Apeel CEO James Rogers, an estimated 1.3 billion tons of food — or one-third of all food produced for human consumption — is wasted every year. On the other hand, one in nine people worldwide goes to bed hungry each night. He recalls thinking:
“According to the numbers, we were producing more than enough food to feed people.”1
After doing some investigating, Rogers says he realized food spoilage was at the heart of the problem. So, in 2012, he founded Apeel Sciences, whose mission is to extend the shelf-life of food and reduce waste.
Rogers noted that the United Nations reports that 40 percent of food waste and loss occurs in developing countries after it is harvested and processed because transporting it is an infrastructure challenge. It is also costly due to the need for refrigerated trucks.
A significant amount of loss happens at the retail and consumer level in developed countries because we throw the food out when it’s spoiled or no longer meets our standards. Rogers said:
“All of the energy — everything that’s required to get the food from where it’s produced to ultimately being on that store shelf, throwing that away — that’s a tragedy.”1
It’s also very bad business. Food waste is almost a trillion-dollar loss globally. Apeel offers grocers the potential to boost margins by reducing waste.
Food begins to rot when moisture exits, oxygen gets in, and mold starts to grow. To prevent this from happening, Apeel takes the skins, seeds, and pulp of homogenous fruits and vegetables (such as grapes from a winery or tomato skins from a ketchup factory) and presses out an oil rich in fat lipids. The company then turns the oil into a powder that is specific for each type of produce to which it will be applied, which, according to Apeel, offers a chemical-free product to preserve fresh produce.
The powder is mixed with water (is it fluoridated water?) by the suppliers before it reaches the stores. The produce is either sprayed with or rinsed in the mixture, which is recognized as safe by the FDA, at packaging facilities, which essentially creates a second “peel” on the fruit or vegetable. The company’s website indicated they have “formulations that are OMRI Listed® for the growers and distributors of USDA Certified Organic produce.” However, it is not clear if the “organic” product is the same as the regular one, and a specific list of the ingredients is not available.
Apeel says the simple process is doubling the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. It hopes to extend the life of some produce by four times. According to Rogers:
“As we start to approach four-time extension for fresh produce, we can completely flip on its head this idea that we need cold chain storage in order to get fresh produce from where it’s grown to where it’s going to be eaten.”1
According to Apeel, customers will see no price difference at the cash register. Apeel products have been on the shelves in over 200 US stores, including Kroger and Costco. A grocery chain testing with avocados, Harps Food Stores, has already seen a 50 percent increase in their avocado profit margins because they are throwing out less product due to the extended shelf life.
Apeel and Kroger expect their partnership to help prevent millions of avocados from ending up in landfills, which should help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. They also predict that the deal will save over one billion gallons of water and help preserve dozens of acres of farmland.
Rogers sees Apeel as a way to help protect the environment across the supply chain. Longer-lasting produce could be shipped by boat instead of flown to a retailer or transported in unrefrigerated trucks to reduce emissions.
Apeel is already expanding outside the United States with partners in Africa to help reduce the load on global infrastructure costs, which is one of the highest costs a country can bear, Rogers said, adding:
“If you don’t need to install electricity grids and refrigeration equipment at every point along that supply chain — and can instead deliver a pouch of our material, which is lightweight and low cost to distribute, to a remote region where it can then be applied — you now have an extra week to transport it without refrigeration. That has the opportunity to be really transformative.”1
According to the company’s website, Apeel Sciences is a privately-held company at this time. Investors include Andreessen Horowitz, DBL Partners, Upfront Ventures, S2G Ventures, Viking Global Investors, Powerplant Ventures, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation. The company has raised $110 million dollars in financing to date. The former co-CEO of Whole Foods, Walter Robb, has also joined its board of directors.
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