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Japan battles food waste in production with AI and weather data

Calbee extends shelf life of potato chips as law encourages corporate effort

Japanese snacks at a supermarket: Businesses were responsible for 55% of the 6.43 million tons of food that went to waste in Japan during fiscal 2016.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese companies are tackling food waste at their production lines, using artificial intelligence and other technology to reduce the amount of food that never reaches consumers.

Localities are set to compile action plans to cut food waste under a law taking effect Oct. 1, seeking cooperation from the corporate sector. With companies like Nichirei Foods and Calbee getting a head start, efforts at the top of the supply chain are expected to have a significant impact in loss reduction.

Nichirei Foods has developed an AI-powered system for detecting hard-to-remove bones in chicken meat at its plants starting this fiscal year. The old system, which uses X-rays, sometimes gives false positives, causing the meat to be thrown out instead of processed into fried chicken and other products.

The company hopes to slash food waste from chicken processing by 80% in three years.

Businesses were responsible for 55% of the 6.43 million tons of food that went to waste in Japan during fiscal 2016, the agriculture ministry says. Makers of processed foods alone accounted for nearly 40%, greatly outpacing retailers and restaurants.

Cutting food waste also lifts the bottom line. Starting in October, snack maker Calbee extends the shelf life of most of its potato chips to six months from four. It also will begin stamping products with "best-by" months instead of specific dates, reducing the staffing needed for quality control.

Leading tofu maker Sagamiya Foods is using data from the Japan Weather Association to predict sales, which are affected by temperature. Reducing surplus production will slice annual costs by about 10 million yen ($92,500), the company said.

Other companies are turning to ingredients they previously ignored. Yamazaki Baking is producing more pastries with creams and jams made from misshapen fruit that cannot be sold at stores.

Mayonnaise maker Kewpie devised a different way to wash cabbage leaves, extending the shelf life of its prepackaged shredded cabbage by a day. Kikkoman tweaked its soy sauce containers so they last for 120 days after being opened, while Mizkan Holdings sells snacks online that use vegetable peels and seeds.

New washing techniques have extended the shelf life of Kewpie's packaged shredded cabbage.

Retailers and eateries also are working to reduce food loss. But changes need to be made by companies further up the supply chain to ensure improvements.

Japan's government hopes to curb business-related food waste by over 20% between fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2030. More companies are expected to tap technology to make production more efficient.

The U.S. and Europe are ahead of Japan in combating food loss. France enacted a law in February 2016 banning large supermarkets from throwing out unsold food, pushing them to donate instead. The goal is to halve food waste by 2025. Italy passed similar legislation in 2016.

South Korea, the U.S. and the U.K. have food banks that distribute unsold food to needy families. Suppliers are shielded from legal liabilities.

Growing interest in environmental and social issues fuels more action on food waste as well. The United Nations pushes countries to halve food waste by 2030 under its Sustainable Development Goals.

Storing, transporting and destroying unsold food also add to societal costs. Given that Japan grows less than 40% of its own food, curbing waste is an urgent concern from an ethical perspective as well.

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