Do You Know the Real Shelf Life of Your Produce?
By iFoodDS Team
January 17, 2022
Shelf life is a complex and often confusing metric. In fact, two cases of the same commodity harvested from the same field may have varying shelf life depending on the conditions they’ve been subjected to throughout the supply chain.
In one study, researchers took random samples of produce from several major grocery store chains. The results showed significant variation in freshness and shelf life between different stores, and even within the same store. For example, shelf life for romaine lettuce ranged from 21 days to none (produce was spoiled at the time of purchase). Overall, 58% of the strawberries, 54% of the packaged salad mixes, and 49% of the romaine hearts sampled did not live up to the expected shelf life.1
Imagine the customer experience when potentially half of the produce you sell spoils prematurely. There is nothing more disappointing for consumers than to find that the carton of strawberries they bought yesterday is now covered in mold, or the packaged salad is wilted and brown.
Do you know the real shelf life of your fresh produce? If you don’t, it will be nearly impossible to control the shopping experience at your store.
What Factors Cause Variability in Shelf Life?
In theory, each lot of produce should have the same shelf life since it was harvested and packed on the same day. But the reality of harvest conditions and post-harvest handling and storage often leads to great variability in shelf life. The amount of time produce sits in the field before being precooled, the effectiveness of the precooling method, cold chain compliance during transportation, and storage conditions at the DC and grocery store can all influence overall shelf life.
Many of these conditions are outside of a retailer’s control. This means you will need to work with your suppliers to resolve any issues around shelf life. But the first step to solving the problem is to identify where it’s occurring.
The Importance of Shelf Life Evaluation
You need the right data and insights to identify where your produce is falling short of expected freshness and shelf life. Just as the researchers in the study we referenced took random samples of produce from various stores, you should be setting aside samples of your produce for further evaluation and testing to see if it really lives up to the expected shelf life. You need to know if your produce is living up to the shelf life anticipated by suppliers. It’s also imperative to ensure your DCs and retail stores are following best practices to preserve shelf life.
You’ll need to implement a system to track and store this data, preferably in a digital format so that it’s consistent and easily accessible. In addition to tracking total days of shelf life for each commodity, you should look for any larger data trends. Here are some questions to ask as you’re evaluating shelf life.
Where are you noticing issues?
Are the majority of issues coming from the same supplier? This may indicate the supplier’s practices are impacting shelf life. For example, they could be keeping produce at an inappropriate temperature in cold storage, or cold chain abuse might be occurring during transportation. If you notice issues from different suppliers, then your DCs or stores might not be following best practices.
When are you noticing issues?
Are there issues at random times throughout the year, or do you see any consistent patterns in the timing? Could certain points in the growing season or particular weather patterns account for what you’re seeing? Look for trends that relate to seasonality. For example, are some commodities always having issues during the same time of year? Are all of the commodities coming from a certain location consistently having issues?
Are there certain DCs or stores that are contributing the majority of issues?
Are there certain DCs or stores or certain locations accounting for most of the shrink? These locations may have poor refrigeration or handling processes. For example, produce may sit on the dock for a while before getting unloaded.
Addressing Shelf Life Issues
Once you’ve gathered and analyzed your data, you can share your findings with the appropriate people to help resolve issues, whether that be a supplier point of contact or your own employees.
If suppliers are driving shelf life issues
If you believe the issue is coming from certain suppliers, then you’ll have the objective, transparent data you need to address the performance issues. The data you’ve gathered will be invaluable for raising awareness of the problem and investigating the root cause.
Work with your suppliers to monitor produce at all points of the supply chain and try to pinpoint the causes of shrink. Ultimately, higher-quality produce benefits everyone in the fresh food supply chain. Working collaboratively to solve issues can strengthen your supplier relationships. By sharing the insights you’ve gathered, you give suppliers a chance to correct issues proactively, which will ultimately help them get the most value out of the produce they’re shipping.
If your DCs or stores are driving shelf life issues
There are many different factors that could be decreasing shelf life at the DC or store.
Delays in Inspection
If your inspectors are overwhelmed with too many shipments or are using an inefficient inspection process, this can lead to produce sitting on the truck or in the DC in less-than-ideal conditions, which leads to a loss in shelf life.
Cold Chain Abuse During Transportation
Drivers may be turning off their refrigerator throughout the journey from the DC to the store, or may not be keeping trucks at the right temperature for the commodities being transported. This is a more complex issue when mixed commodities are shipped to the store in the same load, and temperature should be adjusted so that the most sensitive commodities are at the right temperature to preserve shelf life.2
Shipment Arrival and Unloading at the Store
Retailers need to have an efficient process for unloading incoming shipments of produce at the store. Is there enough room to unload shipments without delay? Are the right types of commodities stored together (i.e., ethylene-producing commodities stored separately from ethylene-sensitive commodities)? Do employees use a First Expiring, First Out (FEFO) system rather than a First In, First Out (FIFO) system?
Fresh produce should be displayed in the right conditions, including refrigerated cases for more temperature-sensitive commodities. One peer-review study on cold chain management found that the temperature in display cases was usually warmer near the top. Additionally, placement of fruits and vegetables was often inefficient in grocery stores, given the recommended temperature for the commodities.2
It’s also important to evaluate the overall location of the produce section in the store. It may be close enough to the doors that outdoor air is coming in and causing temperature fluctuations. Consider monitoring the ambient temperature within the produce section to ensure it’s not being affected by outside conditions.
Shelf Life Evaluation Starts with the Right Data
Manual methods of tracking shelf life cannot provide the visibility you need at scale. You need to have the capability to collect data in real time and store it digitally for future analysis. iFoodDS provides an easy platform to track and store quality and shelf life data. Our digital solution provides the insights you need to get to the root of shelf life issues with your fresh produce. Reach out to our team to learn more about our produce quality management solutions.
1. Russell Redman, “Big differences in produce shelf life, study finds,” June 10, 2019, https://www.supermarketnews.com/produce-floral/big-differences-produce-shelf-life-study-finds
2. Samuel Mercier, Sebastien Villeneuve, Martin Mondor, and Ismail Uysal, “Time–Temperature Management Along the Food Cold Chain: A Review of Recent Developments,” May 29, 2017, https://ift.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1541-4337.12269