Contributing Writer,

A “First-of-its-Kind” AI portable optical scanner can determine how long a fruit or vegetable has before the onset of spoilage, a huge benefit to growers planning out their harvests, distribution companies and retailers planning out shipments, and families planning out their meals.

Hitachi Digital Services, the digital consultancy and technology services subsidiary of Hitachi Ltd., and OneThird, a Netherlands-based agency that specializes in food waste prevention, have teamed up to create the scanner.

“The astronomical volume of food that goes to waste each year is heartbreaking, particularly since so much is wasted in affluent countries,” said Marco Snikkers, founder and CEO of OneThird. “We’ve worked closely with Hitachi Vantara to create technology that helps to address this persistent, global challenge which directly impacts food scarcity. We are proud to have built the first cloud-based and connected product that accurately and objectively predicts the shelf life of fresh produce. The interest has been overwhelming, and we aim to accelerate the deployment of our technology globally.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about a third of the U.S. food supply is thrown away as waste, and the same percentage applies globally, according to the World Food Programme. Of the discarded food, about 40% is produce, a putrescible that, as it rots away in a landfill, creates methane gas, a hazardous air pollutant and greenhouse gas.

Mr. Snikkers said the new technology has the potential to reduce produce waste by 25%. That alone would save billions of dollars for growers and retailers, and diminish food scarcity.

The technology will allow food banks that routinely receive donated produce from local grocers, to better serve their communities. The Houston Food Bank, the largest food bank in the U.S., distributed more than 63 million pounds of fresh produce to partners and the community in 2023. Produce represented 43% of that total. The agency hopes that by 2035, 70% of the distribution weight will be in produce.

Many low-income urban areas have “Food Deserts” void of supermarkets, where residents have limited access to food, especially nutritious produce. “Distribution of fresh produce and healthy, nutritious meals is always at the forefront of our mission,” said Pearl Cajoles, spokesperson for the Houston Food Bank, in an interview with the Techstrong Group.

Not all fresh produce is created equally – the shelf-life can vary significantly between batches and harvests, and human inspectors can be way off on their estimates. But the scanner is precise, down to the minute, according to OneThird. That helps growers and retailers plan better.

Carlos Elena-Lenz, Head of Technology & Innovation for Hitachi Digital Services, said in an interview with Techstrong that, “Growers can decide which produces can be harvested first and, with that, they will prevent keeping the ones that will spoil before being sold.”

“In the distribution centers, the managers can evaluate several batches of the same produce and evaluate which ones they can distribute first, and so they can prevent leaving the ones that will spoil faster to the end. Also, they can decide as well if some produce will spoil, taking into account the distance and time that they will take until they reach their final destination. This will save unnecessary journeys and reduce carbon footprint with produce that will reach their destination spoiled. Retailers can decide which produce to sell first or even predict the shelf life, ultimately applying discounts to sell produce with lower shelf-life values first.”

Mr. Elena-Lenz added that customers can use optical produce scanners in stores to check the shelf-life of produce, to decide whether that time frame fits their meal planning. For example, if a customer wants to buy an avocado to eat the following week, he or she can buy the product with the peace of mind that it will not spoil prior to their planned consumption. However, if the customer is planning to make guacamole on the same day, he or she can use the scanner to find avocados that are ready to eat. The scanners don’t need to peel or poke or even squeeze the produce, which can affect shelf-life.

Capgemini, a French multinational IT services and consulting company, is also applying AI to help reduce global food scarcity, and is partnering with the World Food Programme, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and Tilburg University’s Zero Hunger Lab. The collaboration is called Project ENHANCE: Environment, Nutrition and Health Analytics for National, Consumer and Emergency Diets.

The Project seeks to utilize AI and big data to analyze the factors surrounding hunger and malnutrition, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, applying the technology to evaluate regional environmental factors such as water and land usage, the nutritional requirements of malnourished individuals, and the availability of affordable food.