US & Canada

Field to the fork: Tracking produce back to farmers

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Media captionHarvestmark offers a mobile phone application and website that allows consumers to trace their food back to the farmers who grew it

How much do we know about what is on our plate, and how easy is it to trace its source? The US government wants to make it easier for people to learn where their food is from - but how do we find out?

One in six Americans falls victim to food-related illness every year.

But pinpointing the source of an outbreak can be complicated because most produce changes hands half a dozen times before it reaches the store - and consumers are often the last to know if their food has been contaminated.

Now the Obama administration has passed new laws aimed at making food electronically traceable at every step, from the field to the fork.

And although the legislation aims to improve safety and information-sharing within the industry, technology companies are finding ways to make it available to consumers for the first time.

Some are already offering mobile phone apps that enable shoppers to scan barcodes that tell them exactly where their food was grown.

"There are two things driving this consumer technology," says Helena Bottemiller, of the online publication Food Safety News.

"People want to be reassured that the product hasn't been recalled, and they really want to see the places and the faces behind their food because they're increasingly removed from that.

"Only 1% of the population is involved with agriculture in the US, so it's fun to see where our kiwis and our avocados and our tomatoes come from."

Traceability technology

California-based Harvestmark is one of the first US companies to offer consumers the ability to trace their food.

Launched five years ago, it has already bar-coded 2.3bn items for 200 food producers.

Image caption Harvestmark asked farmers to upload information about their crops to make the food traceable

When a crop is harvested, the farmer uploads key information to Harvestmark which the company links to a unique code on the label.

Consumers can either scan the code in the store using a mobile phone camera, or they can enter it into a computer at home to find out where the product was grown, the type of seed that was used and whether it was subject to a recall. They can even offer feedback to the farmer.

"This traceability technology will be used for things you can only begin to imagine," says Harvestmark founder Elliott Grant.

"In the future, there will be radio frequency tags so you won't have to point your phone at individual items but just wave it at the basket to trace everything in it."

Consumers will be able to receive food safety alerts - and retailers could use the same technology to send product information tailored to individual customers. Other companies such as IBM are developing similar applications.

The mass of information will become available under the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed this year, with consultation and pilot programmes beginning this year and mandatory regulations introduced by 2013.

The legislation was prompted by recent high-profile food scares.

  • In 2008, a salmonella outbreak was blamed on tomatoes. A month later, investigators correctly identified peppers from Mexico as the source, but the scare had already cost tomato growers in Florida an estimated $100m (£61m).
  • Nine people died and many more were hospitalised after a salmonella outbreak early in 2009 that was traced to plants owned by the Peanut Corporation of America. The company went out of business as a result and a criminal investigation is ongoing.
  • Last year 2,000 people were made ill by the largest salmonella outbreak in a decade. Some half a billion eggs were recalled, but by the time the source was identified most of the affected eggs had already expired.

Changing the industry

The US food industry is worth about $600bn per year.

In February alone this year, there were 18 food recalls recorded by the government's Food and Drug Administration, which oversees food safety.

The recalls, which are usually voluntary, included certain brands of pet food, broccoli and fish.

But getting producers, processors, manufacturers, distributors and retailers to collate information and make it electronically available, could prove costly and eventually even change the way fruit and vegetables are presented in a store, says Robert Gunther of United Fresh, an international produce association.

"Customers like to pick and choose and feel and touch - but this could change the whole format. I think you're going to be faced with more packaging where everything is labelled and everything has a bar code on it," Mr Gunther says.

In an effort to ensure that individual items such as potatoes, tomatoes and apples can be traced to their source, he says distributors may find it necessary, and cheaper, to pre-package items that are currently sold loose in open boxes.

He also questions whether enough consumers will want to take the time to scan products to justify making so much information available.

Building 'confidence'

But Mr Grant from Harvestmark says research shows people are 12% more likely to buy a product that can be traced and, during a recent lettuce recall, there was 25 times more traffic to the company's website from consumers seeking information.

Image caption Food shoppers are likely to grow used to being given more information about what they buy

"They want this because it makes them feel better about the products they buy and more confident because it holds the producers accountable," he says.

In the same way that nobody would think of buying medicines or beverages without a tamper-proof seal, the ability to trace food will become the norm within the next few years, he says.

And as more information becomes available, so technology will offer new ways of making it accessible.

The kitchen of the future may well contain a fridge that can tell when food has expired, or a fruit bowl that sends e-mail alerts if its contents are later recalled.

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