Just how much information do you want to about your food? Are you happy knowing that your raspberries came from California or do you want to nail down that they are from just outside of Oxnard? The ability to know just where your food is from is the promise of a technology developed by HarvestMark (Avoiding recalls by tracking food from seed to supermarket, Mar 29, Marketplace).
Elliott Grant founded a company that tracks meat and produce the way FedEx tracks packages. He says people would be surprised to find out how often food changes hands by the time it reaches the store.
Elliott Grant: The produce industry is amazingly complex. And the stuff just flies through the supply chain.
Grant created his first tracking system about five years ago for pharmaceuticals and semiconductors.
Grant: In 2006, when there was that terrible spinach outbreak, we happened to have the right technology and we quickly realized that our technology was going to solve this problem.
So Grant rolled out HarvestMark. Today it’s used by 2,500 farms in North and South America. And its coded labels can be found on everything from watermelon to chicken — and traced by everyone from the guy in the warehouse to a shopper with an iPhone.
The technology here mimics what you see your UPS or FedEx drive do. Starting with workers in the field, everyone gets a scanner that captures information as the berries or melons move through the process. What is driving this is new regulations that mandate traceability. (We posted on this back in the fall.) The twist here is that the information is put into the end consumer’s hands. Even if you don’t have a smart phone in your pocket, you can check out where your berries are from on the web when you get home. (Driscoll’s, the berry grower, even has a special website for it.)
It will be interesting to see how customers use this supply chain information. On the one hand, it certainly provides some assurance. If there is a recall, it would be relatively simple to know if the produce in your fridge is affected. That, of course, is an extreme case. You could hopefully buy berries for years without ever having berries recalled. On a more day-to-day level, I wonder how much people will use this information to make food choices. If you are interested in the carbon footprint of your food, this gives a lot of transparency on how far your fruit has traveled.
A final point: What does this cost? According to the report, a quarter of a penny for every tracked package. For Driscoll’s that comes out to over $100,000 a year.