USDA’s new answer to cutting food waste by 50%: Jelly ice

An investment from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is paving the way for a new type of ice cube to revolutionize how industries a...

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Halfway through an interagency goal to reduce food waste, the Department of Agriculture may have found the answer in a new way to keep food fresh. 

An investment from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is paving the way for a new type of ice cube to revolutionize how industries and individuals keep food cold and curb food waste. 

In 2015, the USDA, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, set the country’s first-ever food loss and waste reduction goal, to cut food waste by 50% by 2030. 

Jelly ice is just one component to reducing food waste. Since 2017, NIFA has invested approximately $123 million across 527 projects 

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, created the cooling cube known as jelly ice — the plastic-free, non-melting, compostable, anti-microbial ice cube that prevents cross-contamination. And it’s reusable, too.

The researchers used nanotechnology to create jelly ice. It is protein-based and 90% water to create a gel that will keep its shape once it is no longer cold.

“Once it is freezed, it will keep the food — whether it’s seafood, vegetables, meat etc. — [cold] much longer than traditional ice,” Shoushan Zeng, division director of the Food Safety Division at NIFA, said in an interview with Federal News Network. 

Jelly ice reduces emissions and achieves environmental regulations, too. 

“Creating this ice cube minimizes a lot of waste from the production, to the supply chain, to the processing and to the table because you can use this new technology in every stage of the food supply chain,” Zeng said. 

While traditional ice cubes consume energy to produce and cannot be reused when they melt, jelly ice cubes are reusable up to at least 10 times.

In addition to being cost effective and environmentally friendly, jelly ice extends the lifespan of foods, for example seafood, to prevent food waste and improve food security.

“When you are not using that ice cube it can be composted and so in every aspect of the entire process, it is environmentally friendly, sustainable, reusable and cost effective and by doing all this, we can minimize the food loss and waste,” Zeng said.

In 2021, households, retail establishments and the food service industry wasted an estimated 931 million tons of food worldwide, the 2021 United Nations Food Waste report said. 

That waste contributed to climate change through greenhouse gasses emissions. 

“If food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN’s Environment Programme, said in the report. 

Food waste accounts for nearly 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, Zeng said. 

According to the UN, in 2020, almost 15% of food-related carbon dioxide emissions come from losses in food supply chains, which result from a lack of refrigeration and spoilage in transport and processing.

“[Jelly ice] uses minimal resources and does not produce wasteful materials to the environment. It cuts down the price for water ice and is usable for households [and] for retailers as well as throughout the food supply chain,” Zeng said. “It is [a] tremendous environmental benefit as well as keeping the food industry sustainable.”

Since filing for a patent a few months ago, Zeng said the research team is working with industry to move forward with commercialization for the jelly ice cubes.

The development team expects to file another patent this year to expedite the technology transfer for the entire industry. Zeng said jelly ice could even expand beyond the food industry to help pharmaceutical companies. First, jelly ice will need FDA approval.

In 2005, the World Health Organization estimated over 50% of vaccines are wasted globally every year, largely because of lack of temperature control and the logistics to support an unbroken cold-chain. 

Vaccine distributors across the country wanted 82.1 million COVID-19 vaccines from December 2020, through mid-May. That’s just over 11% of the doses. 

“It’s a useful experience for the USDA to understand the market and technology transfer,” Zeng said. 

Therefore, he said the agency may want to consider providing up front funding for their projects as they move onto the next step of commercialization.

USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison Jean Buzby said the agency is uniquely positioned to help address the problem of food loss and waste. 

“No single strategy will help us reach that goal alone,” Buzby said in the interview with Federal News Network. 

“The reality is that we’re going to need many different solutions from farm-to-table to really reach that goal and so these solutions will likely include a whole range of strategies: public private partnerships, consumer and business outreach and new innovations like jelly ice to prevent, reduce and repurpose uneaten food,” she said.

“In 2019, the jelly ice project was funded to be a meritorious application in the nanotechnology program and, of course, was recommended for funding from NIFA,” Zeng said. 

NIFA’s investment in the jelly ice project is one of many USDA investments to achieve the cross-agency goal to cut food waste in half by 2030. The $485,000 grant towards the reimagined ice cubes coincide NIFA’s with nanotechnology research program for agricultural and food systems. 

Interagency climate, food waste and hunger efforts can all be aided by NIFA’s investment in jelly ice as well. The U.S. Agency for International Development, which provides agriculture and food security worldwide, is one of NIFA’s many partners that could eventually benefit from the technology, Zeng said.

“We are engaging closely with Israeli scientists in projects tackling food safety and nutrition insecurity issues,” Zeng said. 

Those investments include technologies to prevent frost damage in tree fruits and grapes, microwave assisted pasteurization system to control food borne pathogens and extending shelf life of food products. 

The department has also invested in a technology for “food coatings to stabilize foods and pigments for retaining integrity, nutritional and the sensory qualities of processed whole fruit,” Zeng said. 

“In addition to NIFA funded activities, USDA also has an Agricultural Research Service, which has over 2,000 bench scientists in 90 research centers,” Buzby said. “In the past, USDA has funded the development of new packaging to extend shelf life, new equipment to sort apples faster with greater accuracy and less bruising damage and also new cultivars such as the keepsake strawberry that is flavorful and has a longer shelf life.”

In September, USDA is holding the second Food Loss and Waste Innovation Fair. The free, virtual event will display the latest food waste mitigation technologies and include presentations from experts on how to combat food waste. 


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