When a shipment of avocados arrives at an importer in the Netherlands, each fruit goes down a conveyor belt and two things happen: First, a machine applies an invisible, edible coating to help the avocado last longer. Next, the machine uses hyperspectral imaging—the same tech used by NASA to look for life on Mars—to look inside the fruit without removing the peel.
“This technology gives us the ability to see things about fruits and vegetables that you just couldn’t see before with the naked eye,” says James Rogers, CEO of Apeel, the California-based company that makes the technology. The company, founded in 2012, first began working on food waste by developing its food-based coating to act like a second peel to protect food; it can make it last twice as long. (So far, the company has applied the coating to avocados, apples, limes, oranges, mandarins, lemons, and plastic-free cucumbers.) Today, Apeel announced that it has acquired ImpactVision, another startup, so that it could add imaging to its equipment.
As the equipment bounces light off a piece of fruit—and some of that light goes inside the fruit—it’s possible to gather data on exactly how ripe and fresh it is, and to make decisions about how long it will last and where it should be delivered. At a distribution center in California, for example, “If this avocado’s going to expire tomorrow, you probably send it to the guacamole factory next door,” Rogers says. “If this avocado’s going to be in perfect condition in four days, maybe it goes on a truck to the Northeast.”
That’s information that wasn’t simple to predict before, since a given avocado or cucumber won’t last for a set number of days. “How that avocado behaves after it’s been picked actually is a function of the weather,” he says. “It’s a function of the growing environment. It’s a function of how it was handled. You introduce all this additional variability into something that was already variable. And so being able to take a measurement of individual pieces of produce, and know exactly what’s going on with that piece of fruit or vegetable, adds a level of predictability and quality assurance to the supply chain which is not a staple of the food system today.”
The new imaging also yields other data, including the nutritional content, which varies from one avocado to the next. Eventually, a label at a grocery store could share that with customers, along with a precisely timed expiration date.
The company is rolling the new feature out across all of its equipment, and some customers are already using it, such as Nature’s Pride, the largest avocado importer in Europe. “By integrating this technology into their facilities, we now give them the ability to look at the produce after it’s arrived, and then make determinations about what kind of ripening conditions that produce should experience before it goes on to their customers,” Rogers says. “And that’s allowed them to rethink the way that they do their operations today. So instead treating everything coming in the same way, and then culling out the waste as a result, [they can] bring the fruit in, measure it, figure out which produce is going to behave in what ways, and treat it…how it should be treated optimally.”