AI, the secret ingredient in curbing food waste?

Winnow, artificial intelligence, food waste
Winnow
Winnow's system includes a combination of cameras, smart scales and AI-guided smart meters to document how much is left on plates coming back to the kitchen and whether common items are being wasted frequently.

This article was adapted from the newsletter VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here.

The crop of innovations — business model and otherwise — sprouting up to address food waste at the point of consumption is becoming more abundant each day.

They're on the menu for kitchens at MGM Resorts in Las Vegas, which controls roughly half the properties on the city’s Strip — and roughly 400 restaurants, where many of the city’s infamous buffets and banquets are staged. Here’s a sampling of that diet: 

  • Clean, composted scraps become fertilizer for the 14,000-square-foot Bellagio Conservatory  
  • Used cooking fuel becomes biofuel for county school buses
  • Food scraps are delivered to local pig farmers
  • Oyster shells (100,000 pounds so far) are collected, dried and sent back to the Chesapeake Bay, where they become habitat for spat (a fancy name for oyster babies)
  • Blast chillers are used to support donations of 1.7 million pounds of food by 2020

For more flavor, I encourage you to watch the 10-minute presentation given by Yalmaz Siddiqui, vice president of corporate sustainability for MGM Resorts, during last week’s Circularity 19 event. (The chat is in Part 1 of the June 19 archive, starting around 15:55.)

What MGM Resorts is doing to manage food after it has found its way into ovens or onto stoves is admirable, and I’m sure other hospitality companies will begin emulating its example. But don’t underestimate the role that data analytics and artificial intelligence will play in helping kitchens — commercial, corporate or otherwise — reduce waste.

As I wrote last year, AI is central to how Microsoft manages the food service operations on its Puget Sound campus, which serves more than 40,000 meals daily. The company uses cameras to log what’s headed for the compost pile, so that it can continuously manage what’s ordered.

AI also will be central to the culinary management strategy at hotel chain IHG, parent of Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and Kimpton properties (among others). IHG just committed to outfitting 30 more hotels with technology from a U.K. startup called Winnow.

Its system includes a combination of cameras, smart scales and AI-guided smart meters to document how much is left on plates coming back to the kitchen and whether common items are being wasted frequently. It then feeds that information into a database where it can be used to guide buying decisions, transform menus and even alter food preparation techniques. One IHG resort where the Winnow equipment was piloted was able to trim waste by 50 percent within six months. For now, the installations are outside the United States, predominantly in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. 

"Without visibility into what is being wasted, kitchens are wasting far more food than they think," said Winnow founder and CEO Marc Zornes, in a statement.

IHG is the first global hotel chain to commit to Winnow’s technology at that depth, but the startup has some pretty compelling reference accounts, including catering operation Compass Group, cruise company Costa and the IKEA food service organization in Norway. According to venture capital tracker Crunchbase, Winnow has raised about $11.5 million in funding. The company was last fall named "People’s Choice" at the Foodbytes pitch event organized by Rabobank.

How big of an impact could AI have? A March report by McKinsey suggests that the "opportunity" could be worth about $127 billion for systems focused not just on solutions for diversion and avoidance (such as what Winnow is developing), but also on technologies to help guide better production systems, to enable operations to implement regenerative growing practices and to more efficiently distribute food locally.

Another example of AI that ensures "no food gets left behind" is the production system used by Dutch whey protein company DV Nutrition, which produces 10,000 metric tons of the substance annually. The company uses AI to match its production speeds to the capacity of its storage tanks more closely — it will even stop it completely if they're full.

"Whey is a natural product and the seasons affect the composition. To guarantee high quality, we have to anticipate seasonality in our process. By using up-to-date data, such as temperature, we can make proactive adjustments in real-time," notes Marcel Boon, general manager of DVNutrition, in an article on the Microsoft AI blog.  

IHG and DV Nutrition — and MGM Resorts, for that matter — are great examples of courageous companies that aren't letting legacy practices get in the way of the sorts of innovation necessary for suppressing food waste or for addressing the largest issues of taking action to address climate change.