Every food recall — and we’ve had quite a few of them in recent years — seems to come with a whole lot of scrambling to figure out where the food came from and how it got contaminated. Now, the LA Times reports that the current mad scramble could become a quick and streamlined discovery process, thanks to technology that helps food companies track food from the farm to the table.
I have mixed feelings about this food tracking technology.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m definitely not saying I’m happy with the way food recalls are handled now. FedEx-type tracking capabilities for food could have a lot of benefits, like helping companies and regulatory agencies figure out more quickly what food needs to be recalled and where the problem stemmed from. Technology could even help reduce food waste. For example, “Infratab Inc., a smart-chip and logistics firm in Oxnard, is working with grape growers in the Golden State and ensuring that more of the fruit arrives at its peak — and less is lost to spoilage,” reports the LA Times.
So food tracking tech could really come in handy in addressing some of the major problems in our food system today. Which is to say that my qualms about this tracking technology have less to do with the tech itself than with the food system that’s necessitated it.
Because while the LA Times enthuses that this new “technology helps track food from farm to table,” my idea of tracking food from farm to table means getting food directly from my local farmer to put it on my table. I’m less interested in hi-tech tracking capabilities that track an apple from the grove to the sorting center to the packing company to the warehouse to the grocery store — and more interested in just buying the apple directly from the farmer who picked it from her grove.
Of course, I understand that many people don’t get their fresh produce from farmers markets, CSAs, and local co-ops — and that a big problem in the U.S. is that many people aren’t eating fresh produce, period. But I guess less interested in hi-tech solutions than for lower-tech solutions that more closely connect the farm to the table, thereby reducing the need for hi-tech solutions.
My fear is that as hi-tech solutions become available, they’ll become mandatory — effectively making more direct farm-to-table sales difficult for local farmers unable or unwilling to invest in expensive hi-tech tracking equipment. The LA Times reports that produce trade associations have come up with a Produce Traceability Initiative that calls for a voluntary, industry-wide adoption of standardized traceability by 2012. “Several grocery chains, including the Southeast and mid-Atlantic grocery chain Food Lion, are refusing to do business with suppliers who don’t comply with the Produce Traceability Initiative by the 2012 deadline.”
While many of the grocery chains we’re talking about here aren’t particularly interested in working closely with small, local farmers — and while farmers market and CSA shoppers won’t be particularly affected by a corporate Produce Traceability Initiative — I hope that as traceability standards become de rigeur, small local farmers don’t get increasingly shut out of grocery stores.