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Every day food is thrown away and squandered by the lorry-load. EU researchers are developing ways to cut waste—of both food and its packaging.

Dr. Anastasia Ktenioudaki has been tracking strawberries in Ireland with high-tech sensors. She was part of a recent European research project to reduce the enormous amount of fresh food that gets thrown away because it doesn’t get eaten before the date listed on the packaging.

“We have a serious problem with food waste,” said Ktenioudaki, one of the experts behind FreshProof. “We need to come up with new solutions for everybody to tackle it.”

Fresh focus

Globalization has produced a paradox in the food industry: while vastly expanding the range of products on store shelves, it has contributed to greater amounts of food going unconsumed by making it more abundant and lengthening the journey from farm to fork. Almost a third of all food produced is squandered or lost, according to the United Nations World Food Program, even as hundreds of millions of people around the globe face hunger.

In the European Union, legislation requires that most pre-packed foods display a date indicating a threshold in their safety (“use by”) or quality (“best before”). As part of a general review of food-labeling rules, the European Commission is considering a proposal to abolish altogether the use of “best-before” dates.

Ktenioudaki’s team has developed a sensor system that monitors the environmental conditions for produce at each stage in the supply chain. With this bit of innovation, the researchers are confident they can offer much more accurate “best-before” dates and prevent food from being discarded unnecessarily.

“Typically, food-supply chains work using a first-in, first-out principle whereby whatever produce first comes into a distribution center or shop will also be the first to leave,” said Ktenioudaki. “Given the current global trading of food, we now need a smarter system so that—instead—we can prioritize those fresh products that will expire before others.”

From pasture to plate, numerous factors affect the lifespan of fresh produce. These include pre-harvest conditions, such as the amount of rainfall or sunlight, and post-harvest ones like temperature changes and even road vibrations as food is transported by lorry.

With FreshProof, Ktenioudaki believes combining data about a product’s growing conditions and its journey to the shop will help make more accurate predictions about its actual shelf life. This means more goods getting to the consumer at the right time, and less wastage.

“We make standard assumptions about the environmental conditions for produce which informs how ‘best-before’ dates are determined,” Ktenioudaki said. “We know things will go wrong along the way when it comes to transporting food products, but we can understand more about what impact that has on a product’s shelf life and use that knowledge in a smarter way.”

Read more: A push to ensure fresh foods end up getting tasted instead of wasted