Grocery Stores: The IoT of Food

Grocery Stores: The IoT of Food

Tired of comparisons to the much flashier internet, supermarkets are working hard to ditch their unsexy descriptor: big-box stores. These days you’ll find a Murray’s Cheese outpost in Kroger, a kombucha bar at Whole Foods and poke bowl counter at Albertsons. All these flashy foodie options are good distractions from what’s happening under the hood, which is that grocery stores — the physical four walls — are going digital.

Ready or not, consumer packaged goods (CPGs) — those pre-wrapped items found in so many center aisles — are nudging grocery stores into the future. And so is Amazon. The online retail giant’s entrance into brick-and-mortar supermarkets forced every retailer to innovate or die.

It’s been decades since the internet changed the way we shop, so why are American retailers slow to get on board? The founders of Trax, a retail technology firm based in Singapore, might point to our love for the status quo. The U.S. Census Bureau’s figures (from second-quarter 2018) bear that out, indicating that e-commerce sales account for 9 percent of total sales. That means 91 percent of sales still occur in stores. Maybe U.S. retailers aren’t scared yet?

In contrast, the true retail visionaries are found in Australia, Brazil and China. Yair Adato, Trax’s chief technology officer, says China is five years ahead of the U.S.

“In China, you can go to a store, scan what you want to buy, put it in your cart and they’ll deliver it to your home in 30 minutes,” Adato says.

Soda giants were early pioneers in creating speedy distribution channels. Yet despite raking in billions of dollars in sales, they couldn’t point to exactly how, when or why. Brands were guessing what was on the shelf, how much was left, what was selling at what times of day and even what their competitors had on the shelf. Short of physically walking in to every single store in the world and snapping a photo of the soda aisle, they had no idea what was happening.

In some countries, brand managers might have trusted their employees when they said they went to a store and reported that everything “looked good.” But in China or Brazil, managers wanted visual proof. “It’s a culture thing,” said Adato. “I want to know that I paid the right bonus to my employee.” In Australia, instead of proof, they wanted to improve processes using data analytics.

But it was a little bit like the chicken and the egg. Brands wanted to harness data to make better business decisions, and stores wanted to evolve. They saw that online shopping was more engaging for customers than a trip to the store, but it was an expensive undertaking with no clear financial incentive for either party. While a brand like Coke might want to push retailers for improved ways of tracking its sales, the reality is that it has only a few thousand SKUs (aka, inventory items). Target, on the other hand, has hundreds of thousands. But before it could become cost-effective for retailers to adopt new tracking tools, the technology — sensors, beacons, cameras — needed to advance.

In 2010, Trax began offering its image-recognition software, which incorporated physical images (taken by humans) and store data (including store layout and register sales), then stitched them into one actionable gold mine. For the first time, sales teams could have detailed product and category information including out-of-shelf, share-of-shelf, planogram, pricing and promotional compliance delivered to their mobile phones in real time. This was something managers could trust.

“In a grocery store there is so much dynamic movement,” says David Gottlieb, vice president of retail at Trax. “Something like 40 percent of products will change — a new item, or line extensions and new packaging.” Gottlieb deeply understands the in-store problem.

“Manufacturers are using us, even without feet on the street [robust sales teams] to collect information to get true metrics as to what degree their customers are making perfect stores, and that incentivizes the sales team to do a better job,” explains Gottlieb. He joined Trax in 2018 when the company purchased his startup, Quri, which used a crowdsourcing model to leverage large groups of people to perform paid “microtasks,” like taking images of store shelves.

With the acquisition, Trax now has half a million shoppers active in 6,000 U.S. cities with access to 150,000 stores. Despite this, the company is moving beyond human photographers and is beginning to install battery-operated internet-connected cameras underneath the shelves. The cameras take photos every minute of the day.

“It creates opportunity for use cases — like intra-day replacement,” CTO Adato says. “Our customers are looking at how long things last. That’s an indicator of lost sales that wasn’t available.” CPG clients that use Trax report their out-of-stock rates reduced by 10 to 15 percent and category sales (e.g., soda, crackers or condiments) increased by 3 to 5 percent.

While Trax was homing in on the perfect store, Shelfbucks, an Austin-based technology startup, was grappling with another unknown: marketing. Brands were spending money on in-store product merchandising displays to promote their products, but they had little idea what worked or whether they even made it to the floor. Erik McMillan, the CEO of Shelfbucks, made a fairly compelling argument for his technology: “You spend a $100, and you’re wasting $50.”

Through a fortuitous meeting with two of the biggest display producers in the U.S. — West-Rock and Menasha Packaging Co. — McMillan gained access to an untapped business opportunity that helped brands answer their age-old question: Does my marketing have an ROI?

If it sounds like meta-marketing-speak, that’s because it is. You send a physical piece of signage into your supply chain and on the other end it arrives at a store. It’s supposed to be put up somewhere, on the end cap (those shelves at the end of each aisle often filled with promotional items) or the shelf, but maybe it never makes it out of the back room. With no analytics, you’re left hoping for the best. Given the amount of money spent on merchandise promotion whose effectiveness can’t be tracked — a waste factor of 50 percent, according to McMillan — in-store marketing isn’t much better than shooting in the dark.

In coordination with brands, Shelfbucks puts sensors on displays, and in coordination with retail customers, it places sensors throughout stores. The sensors track the movement of the signage — whether it’s in the back room or out on the floor. When there are problems, Shelfbucks gets an exception report, which is sent to the store manager as an alert in the store’s task management system.

“We are literally generating data about something (store managers have) never seen before,” McMillan says. In 2014, one of Shelfbucks first customers was CVS Pharmacy; today Shelfbucks is in CVS stores nationwide. Fresh food is his next target. “We are focused on the three national chains: Kroger, Albertsons and Ahold USA.”

How these changes benefit consumers is open for debate. Perhaps it’s as simple as knowing our favorite soda — Dr Pepper Vanilla Float, perhaps — will never be out of stock again. And while it may seem as if the CPGs of the world are driving change, McMillan reminds us otherwise.

“Brands can’t force retailers to do anything. Retailers have the power. That’s a really important point,” McMillan says. “The brands have the money, and the customer buys their product, but the retailer owns the shopper.”

For a deep dive into grocery store technology, read Joseph Turow’s book, “The Aisles Have Eyes.”

Markets Go It Alone

Markets Go It Alone

The buzzword for today’s brick-and-mortar retailer is “frictionless.” It refers to a shopping experience where customers can come and go with ease. It means not waiting in lines and never having to take cash or a credit card out of your wallet. Sounds dreamy, right? It’s happening now, and here’s where to find it.

Zippin: San Francisco, CA

When Krishna Motukuri’s wife sent him to Trader Joe’s for a bottle of milk, he came back empty-handed. Why? The checkout lines were too long. When he dug into a study from MIT that found 37 billion hours were lost waiting in line every year, he was stunned. Wanting to help solve this problem, Motukuri took his computer science background and co-founded Zippin.

But while most of us think of the physical store as the end goal, Zippin only wants to be the powerful back end. This month, the startup launched a basic concept store in San Francisco to showcase its technology. To get through the slick entry gate, customers scan a QR code on their mobile phones. Once identified, customers can pick up a can of mango La Croix, a bag of sea salt Boomchickapop popcorn or perhaps a deli sandwich. Soon after they pass through the exit gate, an electronic receipt is sent to the Zippin app. And that’s it. Zippin’s AI-based software platform will allow retailers to deploy a “frictionless” shopping experience that wipes out time spent standing in line. According to Motukuri, operators of physical stores would need only minor upgrades — weight sensors on the shelves and overhead cameras — at a cost of about $25 per square foot. These enhancements, along with Zippin’s software (charged on a monthly subscription) will tell a retailer precisely what has been taken off the shelves.

Amazon Go: Seattle, WA

In January, Amazon opened its first cashier-free store on the ground floor of one of its many offices in downtown Seattle. Called Amazon Go, the store is a free-for-all of convenience foods, meal kits; even beer and wine. As reported by Recode, by being first on the scene, Amazon hopes to “carve out a loyal customer base outside of its website and inside a physical store where the vast majority of food and grocery shopping still occurs.”

Shoppers with the Amazon Go mobile app gain access to the store with a QR code, shop for snacks, take whatever they want and then they “Just Walk Out” — the name for Amazon’s technology. This includes overhead cameras, weight sensors and deep learning technology that detects what shoppers take off the shelves or if they change their mind and put something back. When customers leave the store, the “Just Walk Out” technology debits their Amazon account for the items and sends a receipt to the mobile app. In August 2018, Amazon opened a second location in Seattle. Expect subsequent stores to crop up in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, where Amazon has already signed leases for two locations including one in the famed Willis Tower.

The Moby Mart: Shanghai, China

While Amazon wants to help us eat more snacks, Wheelys, a Stockholm startup, is developing a market on wheels stocked with hip sneakers, fashionable magazines and yes, milk and cookies. In collaboration with Hefei University of Technology and tech firm Himalafy, the team created a roving, train-shaped convenience store on the university campus, 450 miles west of Shanghai, that can be located using an app. Self-driving, drone-equipped, powered by solar and always open, The Moby Mart is a tech nerd’s space-age fantasy come true.

Wheelys’ foray into automation began with modular-bike cafes. The easy-to-schlepp coffee carts could be moved around Stockholm for anyone not ready to commit to a lease. It was so popular that by 2016 Wheelys had sold 550 bikes. Looking beyond their Nordic country for their next innovation, the founders settled on China because of its large population and the country’s near-ubiquitous adoption of phone payments. While The Moby Mart is still running in beta, Wheelys is moving ahead with what co-founder Tomas Mazetti is calling “magic tech,” or hidden tech.

“At the moment, we believe that hidden technology is the next revolution, not just in retail but in many industries,” Mazetti says. “Imagine walking in through an open door, seeing a beautiful pair of sneakers, trying them on and then leaving the store with them, without ever having talked to anyone or seen any security.”

Farmhouse Market: New Prague, MN

Thankfully, not every automated market is so hands-off. In Minnesota, married couple Kendra and Paul Rasmusson opened Farmhouse Market in 2015. The Rasmusson’s wanted to open a store that offered delicious goods from local farmers, but they knew that staffing a store (and raising their three small children) would be a big challenge. Undaunted, the pair came up with some ingenious ways to run a mostly automated farm store that has some human touches.

First, there’s a membership base — $99 to join and then $20 annually. Members (now in the hundreds) can drop by 24-7 and receive a 5 percent discount on all purchases. Nonmembers can get in on the action at specific hours during the day when there is an actual person behind the counter. And it’s not all that high-tech: Members and farmers use a keycard entry system, and motion-activated lights and tablets enable self-checkout. (There’s a one-theft-and-you’re-banned-forever policy.) The store, only 650 square feet, is monitored with remote cameras, and inventory is tracked digitally. As with every one of these stores, humans are still quite important. Ms. Rasmusson prices items from home and texts orders to suppliers.

How They’re Watching Us

How They’re Watching Us

In the early days, retail stores tracked customers via turnstiles. After turnstiles, some stores turned to electronic beams, while others used light sources to count traffic in aisles. These methods were largely impersonal — they didn’t capture our faces, our phones in our pockets and they didn’t connect the dots: Suzy likes to shop on Mondays, has three kids and prefers to buy name brands. These days, our favorites stores have that information and a whole lot more. Here are ways we’re being tracked:


While you’re wandering the aisle, your phone is busy looking for a Wi-Fi signal. Retailers can use this ping to track us as we wander the aisles wondering what to eat for dinner. This can be a good thing, says Mike Lee, an expert in supermarket behavior. “If done right, these tracking technologies can provide a wealth of data that can inform merchandising and layout decisions aimed at creating a more efficient shopping experience,” he says. Using GPS and Wi-Fi tracking tied to shoppers’ mobile devices allows retailers to deliver targeted messaging, advertising and coupons in a more precise manner.


Similar to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows our movements to be tracked by the persistent ping from our phone to any Bluetooth beacon within range. Although a weaker signal than Wi-Fi, Bluetooth is a good backup when Wi-Fi is disabled. If both of these are disabled on our phones, our phones still give off a traceable signal. According to Joseph Turow, in his book, “The Aisles Have Eyes,” our phones’ own signals can establish location within 150 feet. As long as there are several access points, Wi-Fi is accurate to within a few meters and Bluetooth can locate you to within a few centimeters. This means eventually you’ll be reading the back of a box of cereal and simultaneously receiving an alert to get a dollar off that very box.

Apps on Our Mobile Phones

Most cell phone makers disguise our Bluetooth signals using randomized codes. But if you have an app downloaded then you’re fair game. Recently, Amazon connected its Prime membership to its Whole Foods stores, offering discounts on certain grocery store items. How did they want us to connect our accounts? Using the Whole Foods app on our phone. If your location services are turned on, you can bet the retailer is watching you.

Sensors & Beacons

Most cell phone makers disguise our Bluetooth signals using randomized codes. But if you have a store app downloaded onto your phone then you’re fair game. Recently, Amazon connected its Prime membership to its Whole Foods stores, offering discounts on certain grocery store items. How did they want us to connect our accounts? Using the Whole Foods app on our phone. If your location services are turned on, you can bet the retailer is watching you.

Hidden Cameras

Battery-operated, wireless camera mounted underneath grocery shelvesTrax, a Singapore-based retail technology firm, makes battery-operated, wireless cameras. Mounted underneath the shelves, these cameras take pictures that allow retailers to know what’s in stock and out of stock (using sensors). The body of the camera is the size of a deck of playing cards. The camera lens, only 1 by 1.5 cm., extends out from the battery pack via a narrow ribbon and fits onto the edge of the shelf. The software’s image recognition enables any photos with people to be deleted immediately to protect shoppers’ privacy. The cameras talk to each other and to local servers inside the markets so that Trax can accelerate image processing on site to deliver real-time metrics.

Best Before… Who Knows?

Best Before… Who Knows?

Real food. It’s what everyone wants — farm fresh and chemical free. But real food spoils. In the field, on the truck, at the store and in your fridge. That’s why innovators and entrepreneurs are coming up with new and nifty ways to help prolong the life of food.

The next time you purchase perfectly heart-shaped strawberries on the East Coast, consider this: They were probably picked and packed into their plastic clamshells on a Central Valley farm in California between five and eight days ago.

They could have been harvested on a balmy 70-degree morning or in the 95-degree heat of mid-afternoon. Perhaps they sat in the field for one hour — or four. Maybe the pallets took five days to cross the country in a temperature-controlled trailer, or maybe the trailer refrigerator broke down halfway through the journey. Once at the store, the strawberries might have sat on the shelf for a day, or a few more. “Many things can impact shelf life,” says Kevin Payne, vice president of marketing at Zest Labs, a San Jose-based tech company trying to take the mystery out of produce shelf life. “But you can’t see those until the very end,” when 24 hours later, your picture-perfect ruby strawberries morph into camo-green fuzz balls.

Six dollars wasted. Dreams of strawberry shortcake vanished.

And now you can add that pound of trashed berries to the 400 pounds of food you personally waste each year. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 40 percent of food produced for human consumption in the United States goes uneaten. Just one-third of that wasted food could feed the 48 million Americans living in food-insecure households.

Wasted food is bad for humanity, but experts believe it could be even worse for the earth. Food waste is responsible for 16 percent of our country’s methane emissions — the pollution equivalent of driving 37 million cars per year. Growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food uses roughly 10 percent of the U.S.’ energy budget, 50 percent of our land and 80 percent of our fresh water consumption. So, when you figure 40 percent of that goes unused, that’s a lot of unnecessary pollution accelerating climate change.

In the developing world, most food waste occurs in the field or in transit due to poor infrastructure or lack of refrigeration. But in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world, the majority of food is wasted on the farm, at the supermarket and at home.

The food industry had mostly resigned itself to these inefficiencies. “The approach has been that waste is the cost of doing business,” Payne says. “And the solutions have historically been reactive.”

That’s all starting to change thanks to a shift in food culture, environmental awareness, technological advances and a host of entrepreneurs shaking up the industry through food-shelf-life innovations.

Polluting the Planet

Wasted food is bad for humanity, but experts believe it could be even worse for the earth. Food waste is responsible for 16 percent of our country’s methane emissions — the pollution equivalent of driving 37 million cars per year. Growing, processing, transporting and disposing food uses roughly 10 percent of the U.S.’s energy budget, 50 percent of our land and 80 percent of our fresh water consumption. So when you figure 40 percent of that goes unused, that’s a lot of unnecessary pollution accelerating global warming and climate change.

Protective skin

Searching for ways to prolong a food’s shelf life is nothing new. Humans have been salting fish, meats and cheese for thousands of years. We’ve created techniques like smoking, pickling, waxing and, more recently, adding chemical preservatives or ozone, to prevent spoilage. Today, delicate greens are packaged in Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAPs) to replace most of the oxygen in the bag with carbon dioxide (a gas that slows spoilage). What’s more, refrigeration technology, which many experts agree is the key to extending shelf life, continues to grow more efficient.

Yet some of the industry’s most impressive technologies — canning, freezing and pasteurization — were developed nearly 200 years ago. Fresh produce, which is wasted more than any category of edible food, is in higher demand now than ever. People want cleaner food — food that’s safe, with few ingredients and very little processing. Therefore, we need to find alternative ways to slow down the basic life process known as respiration. Food respires after it’s harvested, which means it consumes oxygen and gives off CO2, heat and water. If you slow a plant’s respiration rate, you can extend its shelf life. If you extend shelf life, you can reduce food waste.

Apeel’s product coats fruits and vegetables, slowing water loss and oxidation — two key factors in spoilage. The coating is made from edible plant materials and reinforces the protection provided by a fruit or vegetable’s natural skin. The diagram shows the microscopic layers of a strawberry’s skin. Image courtesy Apeel Sciences.

“Most solutions today have been focused on the transport period” of harvested produce, says James Rogers, founder and CEO of Apeel Sciences, a San Diego-based company that developed an imperceptible, tasteless and organically derived second-skin for produce. “We have controlled-atmosphere shipping, refrigeration, high-humidity storage — all of these are kind of solving the key things that cause produce to spoil, which are water loss and oxidation.”

Slowing food spoilage during transit is important, but Rogers wanted to protect produce through all stages of the supply chain, especially on the farm and at the grocery store.

“If you look at some of the most successful companies of our era, they’re using resources that were not being optimally utilized,” Rogers says, referring to Uber and Lyft for ride sharing and Airbnb for house sharing. “We can use technology to unlock some of that wasted value to improve efficiency.”

That’s what Rogers did when in 2012 he launched Apeel Sciences. The idea came to him while driving through California’s lush Central Valley, listening to a radio program about the one billion people who are hungry on this planet. He wondered why, when there was such an abundance of food growing around him, was one third of that food being wasted. With his knowledge of material sciences as a Ph.D. student and grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation, he began experimenting with ways to improve the shelf life of African cassavas, mangoes and bananas without using costly and environmentally unfriendly refrigeration.

To do this, he looked to organic materials left over on farms — grape skins, stems, leaves, etc. He and his team of scientists blended the matter up and extracted fats and specific food molecules. When these molecules are transformed into powder and combined with water, the resulting liquid can be rinsed over produce at wholesale produce-sorting facilities to create an undetectable “second skin.”

“We’re trying to use food waste to solve the food-waste problem,” Rogers says. The added “peel” acts to “physically slow down the rate at which water evaporates out of the produce and the rate at which oxygen gets into the produce,” he explains. “By doing that, we can dramatically extend the shelf life of most types of fruits and vegetables even without the use of refrigeration.” This science led to a Series B $33 million investment in the company, with big grocers like Kroger and Costco buying Apeel-treated produce to reduce their food waste.

Spicy Solution

Another entrepreneur using food to save food is Kavita Shukla, founder and CEO of The FreshGlow Co., which developed a natural paper infused with organic spices and active botanicals that when placed near produce can double — sometimes quadruple — its shelf life.

The idea came to Shukla when she was 12 years old, visiting her grandmother in Bhopal, India. Her mother had warned her not to drink the water, but she forgot while brushing her teeth. Her grandmother quickly mixed up a spice elixir for her to drink. Shukla never got sick. When she got home, she began experimenting to see if the same spices could clean dirty pond water. They did. Her tests soon turned into a winning science-fair project, which set the course for her professional life.

“For the most part, food-spoilage technologies involve toxic pads, refrigerated transport or a lot of plastic,” Shukla says. But “customers are really aware now. They are asking, ‘Hey, is that apple waxed? What is the wax?’”

To make FreshPaper, the company infuses a proprietary blend of bacteria-inhibiting spices into compostable, organic paper. The paper can be slipped into berry cartons, vegetable bins or bags of leafy greens. The exposure you get to the spices is similar to what you might get while walking through the spice aisle of a grocery store, Shukla explains.

Best of all, Shukla’s paper is inexpensive, compostable and safe for humans and the environment. “I had my grandmother in mind when I designed the technology,” Shukla says. “She never had a refrigerator.” The product is already sold in 180 countries.

For the FreshGlow Co., which has taken it slow and steady, scaling up is the goal: to bring its product to larger produce companies and food distributors around the world. “That was always my intention — to use the technology to reduce food waste across the supply chain,” Shukla says.

FreshPaper sheets are infused with organic spices and active botanicals. The FreshGlow Co. founder Kavita Shukla learned as a child that certain spices can inhibit bacteria growth. She turned her home remedy into a simple solution for prolonging the life of produce.

Data-driven Distribution

While entrepreneurs are recognizing the financial and humanitarian opportunities of extending food shelf life, Silicon Valley hasn’t really tapped into this huge revenue stream. Zest Labs in San Jose is trying to change that. The tech company is making the cold supply chain more efficient by accurately predicting the shelf life of produce as it moves around the country. It does this through the Internet of Things (IoT), the interconnection of computers and everyday objects through data sent and received via the Internet. These IoT sensors monitor the temperature of produce on each pallet, from field to the retail shelf.

Zest Labs uses pallet- by-pallet temperature data to help predict the rate of produce spoilage. “No other industry would accept one third of their production going to waste,” says Zest Labs CEO Peter Mehring in a video on the company’s website. Image courtesy Zest Labs.

“The largest impact on produce is temperature, harvesting conditions and variety of the product,” says Zest Labs’ Payne. “Pallets harvested first will vary from bottom to top,” he explains. “We can figure out that pallet A has this much shelf life, and pallet B has this much.” They do this by producing a Zest Intelligent Pallet Routing (ZIPR) code, which routes pallets with less freshness to the nearest location and those with a longer shelf life further afield.

Zest Labs has “removed the randomness of food distribution,” says Dr. Jean-Pierre Emond, a co-founder of The Illuminate Group and an expert on the cold chain. “For each pallet coming in, they now know exactly what to do with it.”

Zest Labs technology is enabling growers and retailers, who have never had this type of data, to profit more and waste less. They do this by reducing pre-harvest water, fertilizer and labor costs, as well as post-harvest costs for waste removal. Large companies like Costco have tapped into Zest Labs’ technology to help their growers, distributors and themselves.

“I never see anyone winning with food waste,” Emond says. The entire food supply chain stands to benefit from these new solutions.

To better understand the science behind Apeel’s product, check out this story from WIRED magazine.

Sell by? Use by? Why?

Food loss on the farm, in transit and at the retail store is significant. But the largest category is even closer: Nearly half of America’s food waste happens at home. A 2012 NRDC study found “the average American consumer wastes 10 times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia, up 50 percent from Americans in the 1970s.”

The food-waste problem is partly cultural. In the U.S., food is relatively inexpensive compared to other parts of the world. Thanks to busy lifestyles, we over-buy and under-plan. And inconsistent shelf-life food labeling confuses consumers and retailers. What does “sell by” and “best if used by” mean? Are foods past those dates actually spoiled? Often, they are not.

In 2013 the NRDC reported that food expiration date codes contribute considerably to the estimated 160 billion pounds of food trashed each year in the United States, “making food waste the single largest contributor of solid waste in the nation’s landfills.” Food expiration date codes are not federally regulated. They vary by state and are often arbitrary, providing false confidence in a food’s freshness or spoilage.

“There isn’t a rhyme or reason to how food codes are set,” says Michael Malmberg, chief operating officer of Daily Table, a nonprofit Boston-based grocery store that sources nearly expired food from local farms, distributors, grocery stores, restaurants and bakeries, and resells that food at affordable prices. “It’s set by the manufacturer or packager and can be done for marketing reasons — if they want to turn a product over faster.”

Doug Rauch, a former president of Trader Joe’s — and Malmberg’s boss — saw an opportunity to change perceptions of shelf life at the retail level. Rauch was well aware of how much perfectly good food was wasted by grocery stores due to confusing food labels. While a fellow at Harvard University, he also learned that food malnourishment meant not just “a deficit in calories; it was a deficit in nutrition, and supply chain issues,” Malmberg says. “(Doug) realized there is a need not only for access to food, but access to healthy food that’s affordable.” Out of that came the concept for Daily Table, which opened its doors in June 2015.

Rauch likes to think of his two grocery stores, located in Roxbury and Dorchester, Massachusetts, as the T.J. Maxx or Marshalls of the food world — where you can shop for quality products at reduced prices without the stigma that comes with visiting a food bank. This model, backed by the PepsiCo Foundation, the Kendall Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recognizes the flexibility in food expiration codes.

“It’s all well and good to have healthy produce,” says Malmberg. “But if people get home from work and don’t have dinner on the table, they’re in trouble.” So Daily Table also set up an on-site kitchen and hired chefs to turn ugly produce or products that are not moving off the shelves quickly enough into affordable, nutritious, ready-to-cook and grab-n-go meals that cost the same price or less than nearby fast food. Daily Table hopes to open more stores because “the concept will be more effective at scale,” says Malmberg. “We are currently covering 65 percent of our expenses. We think with a third or fourth store, we can break even.”

Breaking even, when it comes to food waste, would be a big step in the right direction.

Daily Table in Massachusetts takes in food rejected by other retail outlets for aesthetic reasons. For example, an entire pallet of organic cauliflower heads that were deemed “unmarketable” due to a few brown spots were saved before they ended up in a dumpster. The DT team sorted and repackaged them for sale as raw produce and as part of their prepared foods offerings. Image courtesy Daily Table.

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Protecting Provisions

Protecting Provisions

Food packaging has been around as long as people have traded goods in markets. How else are you going to schlep that wine home across the desert? Given all that’s new in packaging and shelf-life technology, we’re taking a look back to some golden oldies, from skins and amphorae to the humble milk bottle.


Plants, animals and even humans have skins that inhibit the loss of water, so we will last longer. Food packaging performs the same function, inhibiting water loss and gain to extend freshness during transportation and storage. Too much water for any living creature causes cell death, so food scientists have been working for centuries to find the best way to provide a barrier between food and the environment.

Before the 17th century, that optimal barrier was literal skin. Leather bladders and other animal hides were convenient packaging materials beginning in prehistoric periods, and most “packages” for food were not removed during the cooking process. Animal bladders held meats and mixtures of vegetables and seasonings over the cooking fire. In a sense, haggis and natural sausage casings are modern-day versions of this ancient packaging.

Though we now have more options than our 17th-century ancestors did, we still protect many foods from spoilage by applying a protective skin.

Think of spoilage this way: Any perishable food ingredient, processed or unprocessed, breathes just like we do, taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. Bacteria grows faster if it exists in conditions that enable it to breathe, allowing it to break down the plant or animal cells. That’s why you frequently see cheeses and fruits covered with wax. The Chinese popularized this tactic during the 12th century, when they wrapped citrus fruits in wax to decrease the interior oxygen content and ensure the fruits made it to the emperor’s table. Different types of waxes (e.g., sugar cane and carnauba) are often applied by spraying or dipping fruits and vegetables to preserve or improve the appearance and protect the produce during storage.

Wax isn’t the only kind of protective skin: Victorians used lard to coat food, and M&Ms are covered with confectioner’s shellac, a substance made of an insect-derived coating that’s produced in India and called lac dye. Your french fries remain white and crispy because of a coating applied during processing to inhibit discoloration. Some other coatings aren’t so natural, including calcium acetate and calcium ascorbate. Even wheat gluten becomes a skin for some foods that are not grain-related at all.

Jars and Pottery

Three thousand clay jars of fermented fish sauce emerged gently from the sea in 2015. A team of archeologists led by Simon Luca Trigona celebrated their trove after two years of painstaking work around a Roman ship that was built sometime in the first or second century. These containters, called amphorae (singularly, amphora), have been around since the Neolithic Period (10,000 to 2,000 BCE). They were made of clay and often carried wine, oil or a fish sauce known as garum. The fish sauce, which resembled ketchup, was most likely from Spain and bound for Roman markets.

Fish sauce traveled in pottery vessels long before the sinking of the Roman ship. At the time, clay was also used as a sealant for baskets that carried grain. To eliminate the absorption of liquids by the vessel, clay, resin or pitch coated the interior surfaces. Manufacturers of amphorae applied a stamp to the outside that indicated its origin. In some cases, other information would be written or painted on to indicate weights, contents and market information.

Not often recycled, Greek and Roman amphorae were broken up after they reached their destinations. Rome’s Monte Testaccio is a mountain of these vessels, a Roman pottery garbage heap.

Clay amphorae

Glass, Crates and Cartons

Milk travels along the supply chain in bulk and consumer packaging, contained in glass, plastic and paper. A rusty milk jug worked its way up to the soil surface in our backyard last summer, with a metal label indicating it had belonged to the Turner Center Creamery in Auburn, Maine. The creamery, which operated in Auburn in 1893, manufactured the first commercial ice cream in New England. Customers would send jugs to dairies where the farmers would refill and deliver the milk back to the customer.

In more urban areas, metal milk jugs had been replaced with glass bottles topped with metal caps. Alexander Campbell introduced these bottles in 1878 in Brooklyn, New York, and by the early 1900s, fiber material and paraffin covered the metal caps. At first, customers resisted the glass bottles because glass was commonly used for medicines from the drug stores, and dairies worried about broken glass. But distributors preferred glass for sanitation and easy handling, so both dairies and consumers overcame their concerns, and glass replaced the metal jugs until paperboard appeared in the early 20th century.

In 1915, John Van Wormer patented a wax-sealed paper carton with a gable top that could be shipped flat for assembly at the dairy. Gallon and half-gallon plastic jugs became the preferred package for milk by 1970, but paper milk cartons have made a comeback since being fitted with screw tops in the 1990s.

Plastic jugs travel to stores in milk crates, which were once made of metal, but were replaced with plastic by the 1960s. Each crate carries four to six one-gallon plastic milk jugs. About 20 million crates go missing every year, stolen for shredding and reselling at a profit. The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) estimates that U.S. dairy companies spend 
between $80 and $100 million to replace stolen or missing plastic milk crates (read about another beverage container that often falls out of the supply chain).

Fish Out of Water

Fish Out of Water

As the lobster capital of the U.S. looks to diversify its commercial fishing industry, new options for harvesting seafood are emerging — in ocean-based farms, in cold rivers and even on land. Maine is diving into aquaculture.

Independent fishermen, the backbone of the Maine commercial seafood industry, play a vital role in the state’s culture and economy. Roughly 5,000 lobster fishermen produce 80 percent of the value of Maine’s commercial seafood catch – an estimated contribution of more than $1 billion to the state economy. But relying too much on any one species could put the state in a precarious position. The volume and value of Maine lobster fell more than 15 percent from 2016 to 2017, from $533 million in 2016 to $434 million in 2017. Tariffs imposed in July 2018 by China on select American products, including lobster, represent a new factor that could affect Maine lobstermen this year, despite a very productive season so far.

Climate change is another problem. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) has identified the waters off of coastal Maine as “one of the fastest-warming ocean ecosystems on the planet.” The volatility of the water temperature is just one reason many small fishermen began to focus primarily on lobster, where prior generations made a living on a varied catch. In this new reality, re-diversifying production and having more direct control over cultivation will help sustain Maine’s commercial seafood industry. Two aquaculture endeavors now in development represent decidedly different alternatives for America’s lobster capital.

The Rise of Aquaculture Worldwide

Aquaculture in Maine has been practiced since at least the 1800s. While laws regarding fish and shellfish culture date back to 1905, the Maine Legislature only began to regulate aquaculture as an industry in 1973. In the last few decades, Maine-based institutions have dived into aquaculture research, but many questions remain about how to make production more cost-efficient. Farmers bringing product to market also play an important role in determining aquaculture’s viability: by finding ways to integrate into existing supply chains or to create new ones and by understanding how consumers relate to new products, including their willingness to pay to them.

Worldwide, consumers seem very willing to pay for farmed fish. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), global per-capita fish consumption is on the rise. As of 2016, aquaculture accounted for 47 percent of all fish consumed as food. Further, the first-sale value of all aquaculture production was estimated at $243.5 billion — almost double the value of global fishery production. Investors have noticed. Venture capital and private-equity capital from the same entrepreneurial ecosystems that have long funded tech startups are turning to food systems ventures.

“Fish is the new beef,” says Mike Velings, a Dutch venture capitalist and founder of Aqua-Spark, the first aquaculture investment fund. His 2015 TED talk, “The Case for Fish Farming,” has been viewed more than a million times. In light of this global surge in aquaculture, Maine’s fishing industry is exploring ways to move beyond lobsters.

What is Aquaculture?

The term aquaculture refers to the farming of aquatic organisms in water and can include finfish, shellfish, crustaceans, sea cucumber, seaweed, kelp, algae — anything that grows in water. It’s related to hydroponics, which generally refers to growing plants in nutrient-rich water, without soil, as well as aquaponics, the symbiotic cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in a recirculating environment. Aquaculture differs from conventional fishing or even harvesting of shellfish and seaweed in that it explicitly includes propagation (almost always in a land-based, lab-like setting, or “hatchery”) as well as tending to the crop, or stock, through the whole growth cycle. Vertical ocean farming is essentially an aquaponic practice in an ocean environment, in which seaweed and shellfish farms are vertically arranged in the water column, mimicking the arrangement of natural systems and promoting interactivity with other ocean species around them.

All Eyes on Scallops

Tenants Harbor in St. George is a picturesque spot in Maine’s mid-coast region, nestled between two hillsides that protect it from the winds off the bay. I’ve come here to meet Ryan McPherson, Merritt Carey and Peter Miller, members of the newly formed Maine Aquaculture Co-op. The topic: sea-scallop farming in Penobscot Bay. It’s a new idea for a region more associated with lobsters, and the hope is to reintroduce a measure of diversification for independent fishermen so they can continue to make a living from the sea.

“It’s all about local knowledge,” Miller, a fourth-generation fisherman, says. “I want every young fisherman to have the chance that I had.”

Maine isn’t new to scallop production, but its cold ocean temperatures mean they grow slowly. “To harvest wild scallops in Maine, they have to be four inches, which takes about four years,” McPherson explains. “The product we’re landing doesn’t have those restrictions, because we’re growing them.”

A former fisherman with a degree in entrepreneurship, McPherson purchased Glidden Point Oysters in Edgecomb, Maine, with leases in the deep water of the Damariscotta River, in 2017. He has quickly made inroads in the state, expanding relationships with chefs and maintaining Glidden Point Oysters as a premium product, a philosophy he brought to his involvement with the Maine Aquaculture Co-op. In addition to making chefs aware of the co-op, he fostered a tie to Island Creek Oysters, which provides a robust point-of-sale and distribution network for products that share Island Creek Oysters’ emphasis on celebrating American merroir. The co-op’s first live, whole scallops — not just the abductor muscle that most people traditionally 
think of as a scallop — started selling on the platform in early 2018.

“Before we pull them out of the water, they are already sold,” McPherson says. Literally pulling them out of the water is interesting, too. As the net emerges from the water, the petite scallops respond to the change in their environment and clap their shells shut in unison.

a juvenile scallop fresh from the bay

A 2016 market analysis for Maine-farmed shellfish confirmed that the portion of shellfish produced by aquaculture in Maine remains quite small — less than 1 percent of the landed value of oysters, mussels and scallops in the United States. Despite the small quantity, Maine scallops garner the highest price per pound of any state. Yet Maine produces only 2 percent of the country’s volume. To meet consumer demand, the United States imports 40 million pounds of scallop meat, with a value ($350 million) close to the value of scallops it produces domestically ($380 million). Projections about future consumer demand may be conservative because they don’t consider the impact of expanding direct-to-consumer buying options and prepared meal kits. The report also notes that Maine has the cold, clean waters to support shellfish aquaculture expansion, with projected acreage needed by 2030 estimated to be less than .3 percent of state waters.

Merritt Carey pulls a lantern net out of the water to reveal juvenile scallops in an early stage of growth. Photo by Laurie Zapalac.

Lexicon IconMerroir

like the French terroir, which refers to the flavor notes a wine gets from the grapes’ soil and growing region, merroir describes the way seafoods reflect the taste of the waters in which they’re grown.

Ryan McPherson explains the staging float and its relationship to the leases held by the Maine Aquaculture Co-op farther out in Penobscot Bay. Photo by Laurie Zapalac.

Juvenile scallops grow in vertical “lantern nets” (left), a Japanese aquaculture technique adopted by some Maine scallop farmers. Once they’re larger, the scallops are drilled and hung on long lines in water 25 feet deep, where they grow to full size. Click image to enlarge. Image courtesy the Water Brothers.

For delicious scallop pics and shots of the sea farmers at work, follow @MaineAquacultureCoop on Instagram.

The Salmon Story

Maine’s wild Atlantic salmon population hovers on the brink of extension due to loss of fresh water spawning habitat, overfishing, pollution and other forces. Heavily depleted by the late 1960s and declared an endangered species in 2000, wild Atlantic salmon is no longer fished commercially in Maine waters. In 2016, habitat restoration projects began, and small upticks in population are now being recorded.

Responding to the vast U.S. market hungry for salmon, Norwegian investors are focusing on Maine for land-based production. The U.S. exports the majority of the seafood it harvests, while importing species such as salmon — an inefficient crossover that generates heavy carbon dioxide emissions. But salmon farmed in Maine can efficiently reach more than 50 million people in adjacent states, a “grow-local” solution.

“The exciting thing is, you can place production close to the consumer,” says Erik Heim, CEO of Nordic AquaFarms. “So instead of airfreighting in tons of salmon from New Zealand, Chile, Norway, Scotland, you can produce it locally.”

Salmon swim around in a tank at an indoor, land-based finfish farm.

Moving Indoors

Nordic AquaFarms aims to produce 30,000 metric tons (approximately 66 million pounds) of salmon annually in a facility in Belfast, Maine, estimated to cost $500 million when fully complete. Due in part to concerns associated with ocean-based finfish farming, including fish feed sourcing, disease, use of antibiotics, fish escape, pollution and others, the location of aquaculture is changing dramatically. Earlier aquaculture practices for finfish entailed producing eggs and growing juvenile fish in land-based hatcheries, then releasing them into sea-pens — or in the case of stock regulation, into the wild. Today’s finfish aquaculture is increasingly keeping the fish indoors for life.

Heim explains that the facility will comprise three main production areas: hatchery, grow out and processing. The facility’s engine is a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS). “Land-based farming is basically where everything is happening indoors,” Heim says. “You’re taking water in and releasing water out, so you can clean it and treat it,” a practice that allows for recirculation and a reduction in overall water usage and nutrient discharge. “That’s a key part of the concept.”

Overhead rendering of Nordic Aquafarms’s site in Belfast, Maine. The first phase of construction of the indoor-salmon-farming facility is projected to be complete in 2020 or 2021. Image courtesy Nordic Farms.

Deploying aquaculture on a large scale indoors means confronting questions about selective breeding, genetic engineering, use of fertilizers and antibiotics, and waste processing — issues familiar to other types of industrial-scale land-based farming. Another question is how the introduction of foreign-investor-driven projects will impact the local communities and economies that host them. While operations of this size should mean more jobs, fishermen may have to adjust to harvesting their catch on land.

While building on decades of knowledge, Nordic AquaFarms operations are relatively new. Founded in 2014, its business units include Sashimi Royal in Hanstholm, Denmark, the largest yellowtail kingfish facility in the world, which began producing commercially in early 2018; and Fredrikstad Seafood in Fredrikstad, Norway, which will be the biggest salmon facility in Europe when it comes online in 2018. The Fredrikstad operation is “the blueprint for what we’re doing here. What we’re looking to do is not just build a land-based facility. We want to change this industry, and we’ve invested a lot into innovation,” Heim says. “We’re taking the science to an entirely new level.”

This raises an important question: How can radically new practices — so new they aim to be innovative on a global scale — be embraced by communities devoted to traditional methods?

Heim takes a stab at the answer. “If you look at the Maine seafood industry, it is very fragmented, many small producers, mostly concerned about their own business. Enormous resources go into building seafood brands and salmon brands in Norway. I think there is an opportunity for the industry (in Maine) to get together and do more.”

Yet, Maine is a vastly different place politically, socially and economically than Norway. Rather than solely focusing on exporting Nordic best practices, what will the Norwegians seek to learn from Mainers, ensuring that knowledge sharing is a two-way process? And how will they address concerns raised by their host community: What does releasing waste and nutrients a mile off shore really mean? How will it affect the bay? How will it affect me as a swimmer? How many people do you intend to employ and how much will you pay them?

On the Dinner Table

Land-based salmon farming and ocean-based scallop farming operate under wildly different assumptions about how people acclimate to new ideas, from winning over potential consumers to gaining support from host communities and existing players in the commercial seafood industry. Each presents a distinct set of questions about the impact on the state’s environmental resources. Each relies on and will amplify different industry knowledge. Can Maine go forward in a way that its land- and sea-based farming industries not only limit negative impacts for each other, but also find opportunities for knowledge sharing and mutual benefit?

Returning home to Boston, I find a flyer in the mail from the meal kit delivery company HomeChef, showing whole carrots, enticing bok choy and two precisely cut salmon filets. It reads, “Designed with you in mind, using fresh, thoughtfully sourced ingredients.” As food production and consumption continue to evolve, it still remains up to us to decide what exactly “thoughtfully sourced” means.

Learn more about vertical ocean farming in this TED article.