Bringing Transparency to the Food Information Chain

Never in history has information tonnage been more accessible than it is today.  With the command of an index finger and a few keystrokes, we can find just about any information with a click of a mouse.  We can price compare products for next week’s grocery list from competing stores across the city or track your kids drive home after a night out with their classmates.  We all have shared birthday photos with family and friends around the world through the cloud all while monitoring your surefire winning bid for that Green Egg you’ve always wanted.  So why is it so darn tough to track exactly where our food comes from.  Well, as brother Bob (Dylan) once crooned my friend, “…the times are a-changin.”

Food traceability is here folks and never before have consumers been able to actually track their food “from the farm to the fork”.  Traceability is the innovation that allows one to track any food through all stages of production, processing and distribution.  When traceability works well, one should be able to track the food supply chain backwards and forwards within the process of delivering an item to your supper table.

You want to know where the pepperoni from your pizza came from before Dominos?  Trace it.  Need to make sure a fruitcake is peanut free? Trace it.  While reaction from food companies has been mixed, consumers will be the ultimate “deciders”—determining  whether U.S. food traceability will be a welcomed resource or a bothersome add on that drives food costs higher.  While traceability offers many benefits to the consumer, there are three primary drivers that will ultimately measure the value we place on its effectiveness:   1. Food Quality and Integrity 2. Food Allergies and 3. Beliefs, Customs or Preferences.

The most basic of consumer needs regarding our food supply is quality.  Does the food item meet federal grade standards?  Such standards are like the ones we have for egg producers or sanitation requirements that are desperately needed to avoid a breakout of food contamination.  The 2006 North American E. coli outbreak involving the nations spinach supply is a great example of how substandard food quality control can cause the nation serious consequences.  In the 2006 case, over 200 consumer experienced illnesses and tragically three met their untimely deaths.  This was a serious blight on the food service industry and cannot be allowed to repeat itself.

Along with food quality, food integrity should be just as concerning for consumers, particularly those seeking organic products.  If a food item is marketed as organic, chances are you’re paying 20% to 30% higher prices than those sold as conventional.  That product must be true to form if sold as chemical, cage or fish farm free; as it promises to deliver a certain level of comfort and peace of mind to meal providers when they serve their families Sunday dinner.  Even those customers who haven’t joined the organic movement deserve to know the basics.  If you were promised and paid for Wild Alaska Salmon, you need to be assured it wasn’t raised in a fish pen in China!

According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) its estimated that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies. The protection of children alone will be an important argument in the effort to fully bring food traceability to the U.S.  This number includes potential deadly consequences for 1 in every 13 children under 18 years of age—approximately 2 kids per public school classroom!  According to a 2013 CDC and Prevention study, food allergies among children increased about 50% between 1997 and 2011.  This is clearly an issue that is not going away.  Better tracking and transparency of ingredients, production and food integrity will go miles into ensuring safety for our most vulnerable citizens.

Finally, as the world becomes a closer community, food beliefs and customs will continue to hit the awareness of Americans that haven’t had to think about Kosher, Halal or Hindu food customs.  In addition, many Americans are adopting a Vegan or Vegetarian lifestyle.  All the above are not menu choices, they are religious beliefs, lifestyle changes or cultural adoptions.  Maintaining truth and discipline in these beliefs and lifestyle choices takes careful planning and some additional research beyond Yelp ratings.  Food Traceability will be a powerful arrow in the quiver of those needing to know precisely how their food is prepared and exactly where it originated.

The food information chain can be head spinning.   The new global marketplace adds more possible origins tonight’s dinner may have traveled from before landing on your family’s supper table.  Now and into the very near future, consumers will be able to use technology such as mobile apps, food tracking software and even social media to get a better view of the path their meal went down whether coming from the farm, the river or the root.  Because ultimately, it’s up to us, the eater in charge to require that our food supply meets certain standards and the food industry “pops their hood” to show us how their engine runs.