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January 24, 2011

Traceability Rule Represents Big Adjustment for Food Industry

The Washington Post

by Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post Staff Writer | January 24, 2011

"In response to a new federal food safety law and growing consumer interest, vast amounts of new data are being generated about the complicated path that food takes from field to supermarket shelf.

"And, increasingly, some of that information is being offered to curious shoppers, who in some stores can wave a smartphone above an apple or orange and learn instantly where it was grown, who grew it and whether it has been recalled. They can even contact the farmer, if they feel moved.

"A provision of the federal food safety law passed last year requires that all players in the country's food supply chain be able to quickly trace from whom they received a food product and to whom they sent it. They'll have to maintain that information in digital form, creating deep wells of information that, in some cases, consumers could tap into through their computers or cellphones."

"HarvestMark, based in California, has developed a two-dimensional bar code sticker that can be placed on individual fruits and vegetables or packaging.

"Shoppers can scan the sticker with a smartphone or go to the HarvestMark website and enter the number from the sticker to learn the path the food has taken and other information the farmer chooses to share, such as the harvest date.

" 'There's been a very rapid sea change in consumer behavior,. 'With very high-profile food recalls, cellphones and iPhones, people have been trained that they can access information very quickly. They want to know, "Where does this come from and is it safe? How far has it traveled? What are the growing practices?" '

"HarvestMark is being used by more than 200 companies, including the national chain Kroger's, which is applying it to all of its private label fruits and vegetables in its more than 2,400 stores.

"Not only does the technology provide information about the food, but it also allows the consumer to send a comment to the farmer, Grant said. 'You can click a button and tell the farmer "These are the greatest strawberries I've ever had" or whatever. . . . It's about using technology to put people back in touch with the people who grow their food.'

"That's new for Phillip Bauman, a 42-year-old watermelon farmer in Washington state. Bauman bought the HarvestMark system for his Pasco farm about three years ago because Costco required a tracking system.

"But Bauman, who is a member of the Old German Baptist Brethren, does not own a television, use e-mail or have Internet service. HarvestMark provides him with a laptop computer and pre-printed bar code stickers for his melons. And during harvesting, he takes the laptop to a bank or some other place with Internet service to upload the data to HarvestMark.

"One day, he was surprised to get a letter from an unhappy customer who had tracked down his address from the HarvestMark sticker. Using the code, Bauman traced the melon and discovered it had been picked in August but purchased by the customer in October.

" 'We called him back and said we're really sorry,' Bauman said. 'Then I complained to the chain and said my name is on this product that's out there for two months. This system gives the end user - the customer - the option to be more aware of their products and where it comes from. And I think there will be a higher level of accountability, on our end of it, too.' "

Read the full article.