The Growing Problem of Organic Food Expiration: What AP/LP Professionals Need to Know

Organic foods, particularly produce, have risen in popularity among grocery shoppers throughout the past few years. According to the latest numbers from the Organic Trade Association, organic sales in the United States in 2016 reached about $47 billion, reflecting new sales of almost $3.7 billion—a clear surge as the food market overall remained stagnant.

While just how much eco-friendly and healthy organic food is over conventional produce is another question, the net effect on grocers remains the same: shoppers are buying more organic produce, which presents new challenges for asset protection and loss prevention (AP/LP).

Before we get into what AP/LP professionals need to do to accommodate the rise in organic food, it’s important to step back and get a clear understanding of a key question underlying the issue:

Does organic produce have a shorter shelf life than conventional produce?

The short answer: It depends on the type of food.

Most people’s intuitions tell them that since organic food hasn’t been treated with the chemicals used on conventional produce to protect it from bacteria build-up, weather elements, pests, and other threats to longevity, it has shorter overall shelf life.

Researchers that have tested certain types of food for comparative shelf life have found that many organic foods do indeed have higher levels of bacteria that cause food to spoil (but not cause illness). Additionally, other research has found that because fruits and vegetable are not treated with waxes or preservative to the same degree that conventional produce is, they may indeed spoil faster.

Beyond the use of chemicals to boost resilience, some have theorized that poorly developed distribution systems for organic produce may be a factor as well––an idea supported by the fact that some grocers see their organic produce lasting even longer than conventional products.

Given these challenges, we’ve highlighted three ways AP/LP professionals can protect organic inventory:

Advocate internally for a more information-rich shopping experience to spur organic sales

While AP/LP professionals don’t directly touch the merchandising aspect of store displays, they can be vocal internal advocates for efforts that have been shown to boost department-specific sales, lessening the need to protect against shelf life challenges in the first place.

Retail experts note that although supermarket operators tend to see themselves as merchandisers, shoppers are increasingly relying on them as advocates and educators of healthy choices.

Larger supermarkets like Whole Foods Market are increasingly offering primers about organic standards on their website, noting that stores source organic produce whenever possible because the company believes it’s better for the environment. Initiatives like this can go a long way in decreasing the burden on AP/LP efforts by directing health-conscious shoppers toward products they might otherwise miss.

Prioritize shelf life monitoring around the highest contributors to produce shrink

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Agricultural Science conducted by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nielsen Perishables Group Inc., and other research organizations identified the specific types of fruits and vegetables that contributed the most to overall shrink throughout 2011 and 2012. Since the researchers were interested in the factors that contribute to produce shrink besides theft, stolen products were not accounted for in the results.

While many AP/LP teams may already have a tight handle on which products are their highest contributors of shrink in the produce department, this list may serve as a helpful resource both for teams in need of a “first step” toward allocating time and resources toward expiration date management as well as those who may be unknowingly missing important items requiring close shelf life monitoring.

Fruit

Fruit Average Shrink in 2011-2012 (%) Uneaten Whole Fruit (Millions lbs./year)
Papayas 43.1 124
Pineapple 32.2 617
Apricots 30.0 9
Watermelon 25.4 1,063
Honeydew 22.5 100
Mangoes 21.1 157
Apples 19.2 932
Avocados 19.0 300
Grapefruit 18.2 136
Cantaloupe 15.6 400

 

The graph below offers an eye-opening comparison of how shrink percentages map onto the percent of uneaten whole fresh fruit.uneaten and shrink fruit graph

Vegetables

Vegetable Average Shrink (%) Uneaten Whole Vegetables (Million lbs./year)
Turnip greens 62.9 71
Mustard greens 61.1 76
Escarole/endive 47.4 40
Collard greens 43.8 117
Okra 40.2 49
Squash 26.6 28
Radishes 22.7 29
Snap beans 21.9 127
Artichokes 20.8 90
Eggplant 20.6 51

 

Again, the graph below illustrates how the top vegetables in terms of shrink are different than those in terms of total amounts that go uneaten in U.S. supermarkets.uneaten and shrink vegetables graph

Take steps to protect organic produce from common causes of damage

While many types organic produce may be at a natural disadvantage when it comes to shelf life, AP/LP professionals should ensure they’re not further accelerating the process by allowing products to get damaged.

A few common causes of produce damage include:

  • Exposure to sunlight
    “Optimised storage conditions for fresh produce in particular in the retail environment will increase the amount sold to consumers, increasing turnover and reducing waste at the same time.”
  • Damage from equipment or tech malfunctions
    Check cold or cool storage equipment to ensure all components are functioning as they should be according to the needs of organic products.
  • Damage from excessive or insufficient temperatures
    Beyond checking for problems or faulty equipment, make sure cold or cool storage equipment is keep temperamental organic products at precise temperature levels.
  • Damage due to poor or excessive handling
    Organic products can be especially susceptible to bruising and other damage that may not have the same effect on conventional produce. Make sure those responsible for handling organic products are extra cautious with these products. In necessary, separate processes and/or handling equipment may need to be used to prevent damage.

Learn other ways you can use technology to enhance your loss prevention/asset protection programs in our free eBook.