The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Special Report Food Security

Waste not, want not?

Examining ways to minimize food losses

Dennis Heldman

Dennis Heldman, who analyzes the efficiency of food storage temperatures, visits one of Columbus' commercial distribution hubs.

Europeans used to fear the tomato. “A poison apple,” they called it. In truth, the tomato’s high acidity had caused lead to leach from pewter plates, poisoning aristocrats.

Today, the tomato is considered a superfood. But the vindicated fruit still faces challenges on its way from farm to plate. Pests, disease, weather or a labor shortage could prevent its harvest. It could be culled if considered off grade in post-harvest preparation and packing. Much of it could be wasted during processing as it becomes pizza or spaghetti sauce. Or it might sit unrefrigerated on a hot loading dock during distribution.

If the tomato isn’t As-Seen-On-TV plump and ruby red at retail, it might be cast aside by American consumers accustomed to perfection. Even if it perseveres all the way to the kitchen counter, perhaps only half is used in that time-honored recipe for stuffed poblanos. The other half eventually decomposes in a landfill.

There is more than enough food produced to feed everyone in the United States. But from farm to fork to landfill, an alarming 40 percent goes uneaten annually in this country, with consumer-level waste accounting for the greatest losses.

So why do Americans waste food?

“First, there’s no penalty,” says Dennis Heldman, ’60, ’62 MS, the Dale A. Seiberling Endowed Professor of Food Engineering in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. “Waste is built into both our economy and mindset, so we don’t pay attention to it.”

Not so in France, for example. There, laws prohibit supermarkets from discarding unsold food, redirecting it instead to charities or for use as animal feed. And European mores have led to “social supermarkets,” which stock surplus food for low-income customers.

Americans generally undervalue the groceries they buy, according to Heldman, so wasted food might not register on their economic radar. They also tend to buy too much and fail to eat leftovers. Sometimes, waste is simply a consequence of poor visibility in the refrigerator.

But often, confusion is the culprit. “Use by.” “Sell by.” “Best before.” We’ve all pondered such commands.

Heldman says a standard, widely understood definition to explain when the eggs or juice or cheese have spoiled doesn’t exist. While dates printed on packaging typically indicate the manufacturer’s suggestion for peak quality, not for safe consumption, the perceived threat of foodborne illness is enough incentive for many to dispose of still-edible food.

Heldman has a solution.

“All we have to do is use a label that changes color,” he says, referring to the Smart Dot, a color-changing label that can be placed on products to indicate freshness or the lack thereof. As the principal investigator on advancements in shelf-life monitoring, Heldman is collaborating with Scottish company Insignia Technologies on the Smart Dot. His interest is in ensuring that the dot, which would be applied to the outside of packaging, would mimic the kinetics of quality change in the food.

“It’s a real-time, shelf-life indicator,” he says. “It would change color as a function of time and temperature at retail and [in your refrigerator]. You’d know exactly when a food was getting to the end of its usefulness so it wouldn’t spoil and go to waste.”

When Heldman was an Ohio State student studying dairy technology, basic computer programming language was in its infancy. Now, Heldman teaches students about food with the interactive e-textbook he co-wrote.

We’ve come a long way. Or have we?

Part of Heldman’s work involves studying the reactions and potential shelf life of food when frozen and stored in warehouses at different temperatures.

“The broad studies of the 1950s say that frozen food should be stored at minus 18 degrees centigrade to ensure quality and stability,” he says. “But let’s say the [chemical] reactions I might see in one type of frozen food seem to be higher at minus 18 degrees than at minus 5 degrees. That contradicts everything we’ve accepted for so long.”

As contradictions go, this one is significant. Conventional wisdom — storing food at a uniform minus 18 degrees — hasn’t been scrutinized in about seven decades, making the school of thought on frozen-food storage as old as the first transistor radio. Heldman argues that revisiting the science could transform this segment of the food system by reducing energy demand during freezing and storage while enhancing quality.

In Ohio, 23 commercial food-storage warehouses keep food at minus 18 degrees centigrade or colder. At 1 million to 4 million cubic feet in capacity, each facility devotes a significant portion of its budget to energy costs.

“The question is,” Heldman says, “do we have to keep a facility at minus 18 degrees? Can we accomplish the same at minus
10 degrees?

“People assume that the lower you hold the temperature, the better, which isn’t necessarily true. The whole system has to be analyzed and reviewed in today’s context if we want to reduce waste. It becomes a product-by-product investigation.”

Heldman and colleagues in his college are working with Columbus-area food hubs now. Ultimately, warehouse operators would use the results of the researchers’ real-time simulations to manage their facilities in the most efficient way possible. Through reorganization, companies would save energy and money.

“All foods that we waste have investments in energy. When we waste the food, we’re also wasting the energy. What sense does that make? If we’re just more logical in how we handle food, we can focus more on getting nutrients to the people who need it.”

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