04 December 2008

Spoiler Alert! Beyond the Crisper

If you're tired of throwing out food before you have a chance to eat it, refrigerator makers are pushing new models they say will cut dollars from your grocery bill by reducing spoilage -- though you'll pay for the savings.

Manufacturers are rolling out a slew of pricey new appliances that they say can keep fruits and vegetables fresher longer. In September, Sub-Zero Inc. released a line of refrigerators with a new air-purification system that helps reduce ethylene gases that cause premature ripening and spoilage (Prices range from from $6,500 to $11,000). Viking Range Corp. says it is planning to release new refrigerators with air-purification technology early next year that the company says will reduce bacteria and preserve food longer.

An example of Sub-Zero's new line of refrigerators with air-purification technology.

Other manufacturers are unveiling new ways of controlling moisture and temperature inside refrigerators to help preserve food. Earlier this year, Whirlpool Corp. introduced refrigerators with a "6th Sense Cooling" system, which recognizes when the temperature inside the refrigerator goes up -- after someone keeps the door open for minutes while trying to decide on a snack, for example -- and returns it to the desired temperature faster than a regular refrigerator. (Models with the technology range from $1,499 to $1,949.) And manufacturers such as General Electric Co. and BSH Home Appliances Corp. are coming out with more models that have two evaporators to help maintain different levels of humidity in the freezer and fresh-food sections so that food doesn't dry out.

The new products are being unveiled at a time when food waste is gaining more attention amid higher prices. While commodity prices have dropped from summer highs, prices for groceries have continued to rise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month that retail grocery-store prices went up 7.6% in September from a year earlier.

Still, consumers continue to waste a lot of food. According to a study directed by former University of Arizona anthropologist Timothy Jones released in 2004, the average U.S. household wastes 14% of its food purchases, which totals about $600 per year. And poor food storage is part of the problem. A study released last summer by the non-profit England-based Waste & Resources Action Programme concluded that two-thirds of food waste in the U.K. could be avoided if food were better managed and stored.

Arlene Orona of Laguna Hills, Calif., says she has noticed a difference in how long her groceries last with her new refrigerator. "I feel like all of my food stays fresher longer," says Ms. Orona, who purchased a BSH Home Appliances Thermador Freedom refrigerator for $5,500 last October. The refrigerator has a cooling unit that helps keep its door bins as cold as the interior, according to the manufacturer. Ms. Orona, 40, says she now stores milk on the side doors of the refrigerator and is able to keep fruits and vegetables a few days longer than she used to.

But manufacturers are facing a major hurdle in a weak economy: Consumers are unlikely to spend money on high-priced household appliances such as refrigerators this year. "Demand is on the downswing because sales of these things go lockstep with sales of houses," says David Lockwood, consumer insights director at Mintel International, a market-research company. Food-preservation features are not going to help manufacturers sell more units, he says. "If you can't get financing on a refrigerator, you are not going to try harder because it has this moisture-control technology." Indeed, many consumers upgrade their appliances as part of larger renovation projects -- endeavors that many consumers are now putting on hold.

And it can seem pretty silly to spend thousands of dollars on a fancy new fridge to get technology that may save just a few bucks on the weekly grocery bill. Indeed, some of the new gadgets are pricier than regular fridges. For instance, the new Sub-Zero built-in line costs about $1,000 more than the company's older built-in models. The price difference is "not all directly attributable" to the air-purification technology, but also reflects the design of the new line and expenses such as higher commodity costs, says Paul Leuthe, corporate marketing manager for Sub-Zero. Manufacturers also note that the new devices don't generally require more energy to run than more traditional models.

Thermador Freedom refrigerator by BSH Home Appliances.

Some users say they bought the new refrigerators more for their sleek designs, but have started to appreciate the technology, too. Joe Fobbe, 43, recently remodeled his home in Long Grove, Ill., and purchased the new Sub-Zero refrigerator for $9,000. His wife "has noticed an improvement" in the freshness of product after using the device, he says. He estimates that certain fruits -- especially berries -- and vegetables last about 30% to 40% longer.

Scientists, however, question whether new appliances could actually help curb food waste. New technologies that help create a colder environment with higher moisture and less ethylene inside a refrigerator help in theory, says Marita Cantwell, a post-harvest specialist in the department of plant sciences at University of California, Davis. But how fast produce goes bad is also determined by the shape the fruits and vegetables are in when we buy them, she says. Product quality, where it is grown and how it is handled are aspects that determine how long food will last.

Dr. Cantwell advises that consumers be careful in picking out produce in a supermarket no matter what refrigerators they have. "Don't buy anything bruised or with physical damage," Dr. Cantwell says. She also recommends rotating the food in your refrigerator often so that items that are more perishable or show signs of decay and need to be eaten first are at the front.

But people are often not conscious about the amount of food they waste. Dr. Jones, the anthropologist who monitored food consumption and waste in 240 households for three years, says that during interviews, household members sometimes threw away leftovers in the trash while stating simultaneously that they didn't waste food.

Contrary to logical thinking, food waste tends to rise with food prices, Dr. Jones says. People may switch to foods they don't normally use because they are cheaper, he says, but "they don't end up using it. It doesn't fit into their everyday pattern of behavior." For instance, he says that people may buy a lower cost vegetable and not know how to prepare it -- or may dislike the taste.

Food-science experts also recommend separating various foods -- since the ways they ripen and age can actually hasten spoiling in foods they are next to. Fruits and vegetables, for example, should be stored separately in a refrigerator so that ethylene released by certain fruits doesn't accelerate the ripening of the vegetables. Also, some items such as tomatoes or bananas are best kept at room temperature.

People should also be cognizant of food going bad inside their refrigerators and toss it out immediately. "People put things in their produce bins and kind of forget about them," says UC Davis's Dr. Cantwell. "That can become a source of bacteria and mold that contaminate other things."

Another tip: Buy only the amount of produce that you can eat in a week and finish it as soon as possible. "You wouldn't want to store most things more than one week," Dr. Cantwell says.

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