The new avocados rolling out to Midwest Costco stores this week don’t look like the future of fresh produce. But they’re testing technology that could more than double the shelf life of vegetables and fruits.
That technology, developed by the start-up Apeel Sciences, consists of an invisible, plant-based film that reinforces the avocados’ own skin. The company hopes to expand to stores nationwide — as well as to a range of other produce.
Experts say the product, which has quadrupled shelf life in a lab setting, has the potential to make foods less perishable — with huge boons for consumers, the environment and the food industry.
Fresh fruit and vegetables account for more than 40 percent of wasted food in the United States, according to the food waste coalition ReFED. Apeel and other companies are working on technologies that could help slash those figures, and enable produce to travel farther and with less refrigeration, improving quality, selection and carbon footprint.
“Already, we’re able to bring avocados to places that didn’t have access to top-quality before, or that often ran out,” said James Rogers, Apeel’s chief executive. “It’s so rewarding to me personally to bring this fruit to places that wouldn’t normally have that access.”
Apeel works much like the skins and peels on many types of produce. Made from cellular material extracted from plants, the semipermeable film adheres to the outside of the avocado and slows the rate at which it loses water and carbon dioxide and absorbs oxygen.
Fresh produce spoils as it respires, which is why packers and distributors chill produce or spray it with coats of wax. Unlike wax, Apeel is designed to optimize water and oxygen exchange, boosting quality and shelf life, Rogers said.
Consumers won’t pay more for Apeel produce, he added, because retailers who use it save money by reducing their losses from spoilage.
“The way we’re set up, it’s more expensive for them not to use the product,” Rogers said.
Few dispute the notion that waste represents an enormous cost to the food industry. According to ReFED, the United States wastes roughly 63 million tons of food each year, 40 percent of that in grocery stores and restaurants. ReFED estimates that reducing fruit and vegetable waste would represent an $18.2 billion opportunity for retailers.
Extending shelf life, experts say, could also avoid wasting water and fertilizer on food that consumers will never eat.
“The opportunity for Apeel is in addressing the 42 percent of overall waste that’s fruits and vegetables,” said Chris Cochran, executive director of ReFED. “And that could be incredibly significant.”
Down the line, Apeel’s technology could have other benefits: improving the selection of fresh produce or reducing the need for refrigeration. The company has experimented with a film for tomatoes, which are typically picked and shipped long before ripeness to arrive fresh at stores. A longer shelf life could mean they remain on the vine, absorbing flavor and nutrients, far longer.
Apeel has received significant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a film for cassava, a staple crop in Africa, and has tested a version for mangoes and bananas as part of a Rockefeller Foundation project in Eastern Kenya. Places such as Kenya lack reliable, refrigerated supply chains, which causes them to lose large portions of their harvests, said Betty Kibaara, an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation. Apeel can "greatly contribute" to reducing those losses, she added, which is why her organization has embraced it.
Apeel is currently awaiting regulatory approval in Nigeria and Kenya. Closer to home, Rogers said, Apeel will let farmers ship niche products — such as finger limes — to more distant and profitable markets.
Experts said Apeel's promises have potential, even if it’s too early to evaluate them.
“I think we’ll have to wait and see if all these things pan out,” said Kathleen Merrigan, the head of the Food Institute at George Washington University and the former deputy secretary of agriculture under the Obama administration. “But we know that all Americans need to increase their fruit and vegetable intake. Anything that makes that supply chain more efficient and cost effective is great.”
For now, Apeel is focused on shipping its avocados to more stores — and expanding the range of fruits and vegetables that use its technology. Within the year, Rogers said, he hopes to have Apeel avocados in Costco stores nationally.
The company has also developed skins for strawberries, bananas, mangoes, peaches, pears, nectarines, green beans, citrus fruits and asparagus. It expects citrus and asparagus will be the next Apeel products on the market.
Dozens of other companies are working on their own “shelf life extension solutions” — though none with quite the funding of Apeel. According to Crunchbase, the company has received $40 million from Andreessen Horowitz and DBL Partners, as well as the Rockefeller and Gates foundations.
One promising initiative called FreshPaper uses sheets of treated paper, placed in salad bags and produce bins, to inhibit bacterial and fungal growth, ReFED’s Cochran said.
And a Canadian company has developed a spray for retailers to extend the shelf life of produce, said Carol Culhane, a food technology consultant.
“It’s become a bit of a movement,” Culhane said. “We’re getting to a turning point — so many companies are beginning to say ‘we need to do something about this.’ ”