Rotting fruit gets a second chance

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Nick Roumel

I love having limes around. I use them in beverages, on poultry or seafood, and in various ethnic cooking. But invariably, the little buggers go bad before I can use them all up.

It’s not just limes. According to CBS News, in North America, 24 percent of produce is tossed out before it reaches the grocery store. Another 28 percent is thrown out at home. That’s an astounding amount of food waste. It affects the entire spectrum of food economy, from farmers to retailers to consumers.

Various methods have been tried over the years to change that, from preservatives, to pesticides, gas and wax. Better educated buyers don’t want to mess with “Frankenfoods,” but also don’t like their produce rotting before it can be eaten.

What to do? Enter “Apeel” (apeelsciences.com), a southern California startup promising to extend the shelf life of produce, naturally and organically. Apeel has already attracted a lot of interest, with coverage in the New York Times, Business Insider, NPR, and—where I heard it—on CBS News. Now even the Legal News is all over this story!

So are investors. Apeel has been fed over $40,000,000 so far, including a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This infusion of cash has enabled it to build an impressive operation, with state of the art labs, to perfect what it calls its “500 million year old idea” – that “A protective skin, shell or peel of some kind is employed by every form of life on earth.” They note that fruits with peels last up to 5 times longer than those without, and that even fruits that already have peels can have their shelf lives extended much longer, with the right coating.

What is that coating? Apeel uses natural agricultural waste (like leftover plant peels, leaves and stems; grape waste from California wineries are popular). It then processes it into an odorless, tasteless and completely organic coating for produce. There are different types. For example, Edipeel prevents water from leaving, and oxygen from entering produce; those two occurrences are the largest cause of food spoilage. Invisipeel keeps bugs out and reduces reliance on pesticides. The result is a fruit or vegetable that lasts up to five times longer, that looks and tastes exactly the same.

Avocados? Check. Limes? Of course. Strawberries, green beans – just about anything that gets the application. The Times notes that “Apeel can even deliver a day-of-the-week bunch of bananas, each ripening on a different day.”

Apeel also permits growers to wait until peak freshness before harvesting. Now, for example, farmers (especially in far away places) pick before full ripeness and preserve with wax before shipping.

To those who remain skeptical, Apeel Science’s James Rogers reminds them, “We’re taking stuff that you’re eating already in every bite of your produce and we’re just re-applying where it is on the produce, we’re putting it on the outside.” The finished product is 100% food with nothing added – unlike much of what is lining the produce aisles today – and lasts a lot longer. The FDA agrees, and has approved the product for use.

I’m sure there are purists who resist adding anything extraneous to a food product. Surely, there is nothing like the taste of a fresh fruit right off a tree. But the trick has been to preserve that freshness in a mass market, and reduce reliance on pesticides and other artificial applications. I looked in vain for criticism of Apeel’s methods or technology, and found nothing on the internet (which as we know contains the entirety of human knowledge).

I suppose one negative might be that Apeel products may harm the local food movement, since “Apeel” enables food grown further away to compete in freshness at the supermarket. But there are many other reasons to buy local, and not every community has the luxury of a twice-weekly farmers’ market like Ann Arbor.

And since I won’t be getting any Michigan-grown limes anytime soon, I can look forward to Apeel helping me put the kick in my margarita, and the brightness in my guacamole – without lamenting and tossing away those withered brown lumps in my fridge that used to be fruit.

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and wrote a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.

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