It's almost impossible to write about GPS tracking devices on the ankles of chickens without bringing up the now famous (at least in the sustainable food world) "Colin the Chicken" sketch on "Portlandia." In the comedy show's debut episode, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein ask a waitress how the chicken they're thinking of ordering was raised, and all sorts of over-the-top hipster, locavore silliness ensues, including the waitress bringing out Colin the chicken's file, complete with photo.

Consumers are collecting intimate knowledge of how both animals and plant-based foods are being raised and shipped with the aid of GPS tracking technology, according to NPR in a piece that also mentions Colin the Chicken because, at this point, it almost seems prophetic.

GPS tracking devices that can be attached to a chicken may some day allow us to know "every step that chicken has taken," Robyn Metcalfe, a food historian who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, told NPR.

There are already 100,000 chickens walking around with tracking devices on their ankles in China, thanks to ZhongAn Online, a Chinese insurance company, and that number will increase significantly by next year. The company is also working on facial-recognition technology for chickens (yes, you read that right), so consumers can know that the chicken they're buying is the same one attached to the tracking device.

If this seems extreme to you, I agree. However, this GPS tracking technology has another use that is much more practical.

Traceability

harvesting spinach A GPS tracking device that follows leafy greens from farm to table may be able to help determine the source of food contamination quickly. (Photo: Juan Aunion/Shutterstock)

A decade ago, I first discovered the concept of food traceability when I looked up a code on the sticker of a Dole organic banana. From that code I was able to pinpoint where my banana was grown in Ecuador as well as the name of the family that owned one of three farms where it was grown. At the time, that level of traceability seemed like a novelty. My knowledge of how often outbreaks of food contamination could happen or how severe — or even deadly — foodborne illnesses could be was limited.

After reporting on foodborne illnesses several times in the past decade, I can now see how being able to pinpoint where food comes from and how it was raised or grown is more than just a novelty; it's important for the health and safety of consumers.

Last year there were two separate recalls for romaine lettuce. In August, hundreds of people became ill and at least five died after eating romaine contaminated with E. coli. Later in the year, a separate recall happened after dozens of others became ill.

The first contamination was eventually traced to Yuma, Arizona, where it's possible that water contaminated from runoff from a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) was used to water the crops. The second was linked to the central growing regions in California where it's possible E. coli was in reservoir water. In addition to the romaine from both of these regions needing to be discarded, any romaine that didn't have an origin on its label was thrown away, too.

Now, imagine a GPS tracking device that follows all romaine lettuce from the farm to table. Consumers could conceivably know exactly where their romaine was grown. In the aftermath of a foodborne illness, the source could be tracked down more quickly with GPS information. The contaminated greens could be pulled from shelves sooner and fewer people would become ill — which is the most important thing. In addition, less food would be wasted.

We're a long way off from having total food traceability, but as the use of the technology increases, hopefully, we'll think less of Colin the chicken and more of the useful ways tracking food can keep us safe.

NPR points out that these devices can pinpoint not only where tainted lettuce was grown but also which farms were affected by the bird flu or if produce was exposed to dangerously warm temperatures during transit. Walmart is already testing out the technology on leafy green vegetables.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Why our chickens and our spinach need GPS trackers
Chickens with ankle monitors and spinach with trackers can tell consumers a lot about their food — including whether it's tainted.