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How technology is paving a path for fresher foods and food security

Breaking down five key tech advancements in the fresh food sector
fresh foods tech
Software tools, often powered by AI, can analyze data collected by IoT sensors to highlight patterns, assist with ordering and predict trends and potential issues.

Thanks to continuous tech innovation, it’s getting easier for grocers to keep fresh foods looking and tasting better for longer periods of time before spoiling. Everything from smart refrigeration systems to traceability sensors and predictive software platforms is enabling grocers to deliver a safer food supply, while reducing waste and improving efficiencies along the supply chain. Here are some key technology advancements in the fresh food sector.

Smarter refrigeration systems

With integrated IoT (Internet of Things) sensors and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven algorithms, these “smarter” systems can control temperature, humidity and airflow within refrigerated display cases and storage units. They can also adjust cooling settings based on real-time conditions to ensure fresh foods stay at an optimal temperature to preserve quality.

Sue Timmerman, chief operating officer at Rivercity Innovations in Saskatoon, says measuring humidity levels in food storage areas is central to avoiding mould growth, spoilage, dehydration or loss of flavour and texture in fresh foods. “No one wants to buy a shrivelled-up head of lettuce or ‘bendy’ carrots, and the way meat and fish look in a display case impacts the buyer’s decision to purchase it or not,” she says. Rivercity’s IoT sensors, deployed in 275 grocery stores in Canada, measure both temperature and humidity every 60 seconds, alerting grocers when conditions aren’t optimal. In keeping fresh foods at optimum temperature, users are significantly saving on electricity costs, too.

READ: How embracing artificial intelligence can elevate the shopper experience

Software tools and AI-based solutions

Software tools, often powered by AI, can analyze data collected by IoT sensors to highlight patterns, assist with ordering and predict trends and potential issues. “Produce is uniquely challenging to manage due to fresh-specific factors like perishability, random weights and mis-scans at the register,” says Dain Charette, chief revenue officer at San Francisco-based Afresh. The company’s AI-powered inventory management platform is used in meat and seafood departments at more than 2,200 Albertsons Companies’ banner stores in the United States. 

Each order day, store teams use Afresh to complete targeted inventory checks that power intelligent order recommendations and auto-orders. With stores ordering the right amount of product at the right time, Charette says shoppers can expect to find higher-quality fresh food in stock. “We leverage AI to improve inventory estimation so that grocers can more accurately order perishable items, reduce shrink and give more days of shelf life back to customers,” he says. “To date, Afresh has helped its retail partners prevent 44 million pounds of food waste.”

To ensure they’re keeping their freshly prepared foods in line with customer needs, major Canadian grocers are turning to a cloud-based solution driven by real-time data analytics, machine learning and AI from Mississauga, Ont.- based Invafresh. “We provide a hard, actionable number that they can execute on so it’s truly telling them what they need to make of this particular product today until the next time,” explains Joe Smirlies, senior vice-president of product management. “And when product doesn’t sell… we have downstream solutions to divert that product away from landfills.”

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Food safety processes

Genome sequencing—once used only by governments to investigate foodborne illness—is becoming more commonplace among companies in the food industry to better understand the populations of bacteria that may be present in their facilities, says Jeff Hall, food safety specialist at the Canadian Produce Marketing Association.

As companies deploy new technologies such as AI, Hall says it will get easier to identify areas of potential pathogens, which can be used to improve on existing sanitization methods. But, he warns that even with these innovations, food safety is an ongoing challenge. “We can’t get too smug with technology as pathogens will always find holes in our systems and take advantage of them,” he adds. 

Supply chain traceability

The combination of IoT sensors, software platforms and AI analytics can now provide endto-end visibility for fresh foods across the supply chain. Grocery stores can track the movement of fresh foods in real-time, monitor storage conditions during transit and ensure compliance with food safety regulations and quality standards. 

The IoT Visibility Platform from Wiliot, for example, allows connected products (including fresh produce, meats and fish), to transmit real-time information about their location, temperature, humidity and carbon footprint. This means grocers can have the data needed to improve supply chain performance, reduce waste and adhere to safety standards, while optimizing staff time and customer experience with the product.

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s May 2024 issue.

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