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Fruit that doesn’t spoil? Extending shelf life is a key tactic in the battle against food waste—and a startup is on the front lines

December 2, 2019

Imagine avocados that never go bad. To Aidan Mouat, CEO of Hazel Technologies, that’s not so far-fetched, The Chicago Tribune reports.

His company makes a product that extends the shelf life of all sorts of produce — bananas, cherries, pears, broccoli—by slowing the chemical process that causes decay.

Now, some of the world’s largest growers are using it to send their produce longer distances, or to reduce the amount that retailers throw away; and Mouat tells the Tribune that a consumer version could be next.

Indeed, as much as 40% of food produced annually in the United States, and nearly half of produce, goes uneaten, according to government estimates. While the waste happens throughout the supply chain, the vast majority of the $218 billion worth of uneaten food annually gets tossed at home or at grocery stores and restaurants, according to ReFED, a Berkeley, California-based nonprofit that seeks solutions to reduce food waste.

The average American family throws away 25% of groceries purchased, costing a family of four an estimated $1,600 annually, ReFED says. U.S. supermarkets lose $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 “I envision, in the next 18 months or so, literally selling a banana box to consumers,” Mouat said from Hazel’s growing office space at University Technology Park, a startup innovation hub on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. “You keep it on your counter, put a (Hazel) sachet in there once a month, and you have bananas that last forever.”

Whate are those sachets? The company makes the small packs—the size of a salt or pepper packet included with takeout—that can be thrown into a box of produce to shut down the food’s response to ethylene, a chemical naturally emitted by many fruits and vegetables that triggers the loss of firmness, texture and color. The sachets continuously emit a small amount of an ethylene inhibitor, changing the atmosphere in the storage box but not the food itself.

How much Hazel can extend the shelf life depends on the type of food. For example, tests show an unripened pear gets an extra seven to 10 days after being treated with a Hazel sachet, plus an extra three to four days once ripe.

While ethylene management technology isn’t new, Hazel’s sachets are gaining fans because they are easy to use, whether in okra fields in Honduras or avocado packing houses in the United States, Mouat told the Tribune. In addition to ethylene inhibitors, the company is working on anti-microbial reactions and will soon bring to market antimicrobial liners for packages of berries, to ward off the white fuzz.

And the company also is gaining buzz and investors. Founded in 2015 by a group of Northwestern University graduate students, Hazel Technologies has raised $18 million so far, including nearly $1 million in grants from the USDA. It has 100 clients in 12 countries in North and South America.

Research contact: @chicagotribune