Food spoilage can cost big retailers like Walmart billions in losses.
Now, the Arkansas-based giant says it has filed two patents on technology that can digitize the current inspection process for perishable goods. Called Eden, the initiative is in its early stages, but the idea is to use artificial intelligence and cameras to create a “freshness algorithm” used by employees at Walmart’s distribution centers.
The current process is a visual inspection of fruit and vegetables, followed by a written record of defects that don’t meet USDA or Walmart standards. But now, a team of employees have ditched their clipboards and binders for smartphones that take pictures of the goods, building up a million-photo database so far, writes Parvez Musani, Walmart Labs’ vice president of engineering in supply chain technology in a company blog post.
Over time, Eden will be able to make those judgments autonomously by reviewing scanned images of the produce and comparing those to a library of acceptable and unacceptable versions of produce, Walmart says.
“That could mean more efficiently ripening bananas, predicting the shelf life of tomatoes while they’re still on the vine, or prioritizing the flow of green grocery items from the back of the store to the shelf,” Musani writes.
Bananas, for example, are imported from seven Latin American countries to more than 4,000 Walmart stores in the U.S. Eden can recalculate what Musani calls their “freshness factor,” and re-route a shipment immediately if it needs to get to a store sooner rather than later. “The bananas end up in a closer store to optimize freshness, consumers take home a delicious bunch, and everyone is happy,” he writes.
To monitor temperature, Walmart will attach tracking devices to cases of produce as they travel on trucks between farms, distribution centers, and stores, Musani writes.
The initiative came out of a company-wide hackathon to figure out how to use technology to improve food freshness. In the last year, Walmart expanded the program to 43 grocery distribution centers and, so far, has saved nearly $86 million, Walmart says. The retailer’s goal is to save $2 billion in waste in the next five years.
Ultimately, Walmart says, Eden will be able to predict the exact shelf life of the produce.