Do You Know Where Your Veggies Come From?

New technology allows consumers to learn more about the food they eat.

Aug. 10, 2007 — -- If you've ever wondered where exactly your fruits and vegetables come from, you may now be in luck. Thanks to a newly developed "electronic produce tracking system," consumers will be able to learn intricate details about their fresh food with a computer and a few simple keystrokes.

The system could also dramatically improve tracking of produce that may have been contaminated.

"It allows a farmer to uniquely identify their product— whether it's a melon or a box of corn— with a unique number," said Elliot Grant, the chief marketing officer for Yottamark, the company that manufacturers the Harvestmark system. "Then the consumer can visit the Web site, type in the 24-digit produce number, and find out all of the harvest information."

Consumers will be able to determine the country of origin and the name and location of the farm, including the exact plot the product was grown on. Shoppers will even be able to find out exactly how many miles the produce traveled to reach the local market, a bonus for consumers who want to support local farmers and are sensitive to the size of the carbon footprint used to get their produce to the dinner table.

The system will be available to all producers, and is a larger, more ambitious version of a system Dole Foods unveiled this year to help consumers track their organic bananas.

Organic food's popularity is exploding. The Organic Trade Association said that the natural food market has grown by more than 40 percent since the 1990s. With the consumers' growing fear of contamination, transparency and traceability is vital for companies' continued success, advocates say.

"We are dealing with a consumer who has grown up with Google, for example, where with a few key strokes we can find out everything we want," said Grant. "Why shouldn't we able to do the same with produce?"

Where in the World Has Your Banana Been?

Consumers who buy organic Dole bananas can visit a Web site, type in a four-digit code found on their banana's label, and find not only the origin of the fruit but also locate the farm on a map and view photographs of farmers who may have picked their very banana.

For example, if you were to enter the digits 7-7-6 on, you would learn that the banana is from the Don Pedro Farm in La Guajira, Colombia. With a bit more digging, you would learn that this particular farm has more than 310 hectares of organic bananas and is one of the most successful banana farms in all of Latin America.

The Web site also provides certifications the farm has earned, as well as links to testimonials about the quality of the farm's crops.

Harvestmark hopes to take their system one step further by eventually installing kiosks in supermarkets so consumers can pick a piece of fruit, scan it and instantly see all the information, including a pop up map showing exactly where the item was grown.

Gimmick or Prevention Method?

Some industry gurus say that consumers have no real need for the immense amount of information provided by these systems and say companies are using them primarily as marketing tools. But proponents say produce tracking could be vital to an industry that has a lot to prove to wary consumers.

"People want to know where the products came from and who grows them and how they are getting from point A to point B," said Marty Ordman, vice president of marketing and communications for Dole Food Company. "Our goal is to get as much of that information out to consumers so they have a confidence level and we feel good about our processes and our quality controls."

"There is a demand by consumers that our products be traceable and we want to protect ourselves," said Mike Jacobson, the warehouse manager for Eagle Eye Produce, one of Harvestmark's clients who got involved after a past contamination outbreak. "We use it to be able to trace the produce so we can narrow it down to what product could be potentially contaminated."

In 2006, an outbreak of food borne E. coli involving fresh spinach and bagged lettuce forced most supermarkets to thow out all of their supplies since there was no tracking system available that could instantly pinpoint the problem.The farming industry lost tens of millions of dollars.

"The number one advantage is being able to identify that particular [contaminated] product to a grower and a shipper and be able to isolate it to a specific field," said Gary Fleming, vice president of industry technology and standards at the Produce Marketing Association.

But whether consumers really benefit from all the information is still debatable. The product is still very new and only has a handle of clients, according to Harvestmark.

"Very few consumers will find value [in the system] because they don't understand what that information truly means," said Fleming, who believes the system is far more beneficial to corporations. "There's no harm but it's a bit excessive. Certainly if nothing else, it shows that the supplier went through extraordinary means to prove that their product is as safe as it can possible be. That's important, especially in the climate that we're in today."

A Work in Progess

With Dole only offering the produce tracking for organic bananas, and Harvestwatch's clan of just a "handful of clients," electronic produce tracking has a long way to go.

In the meantime, consumers may be surprised to find that many of the secrets that lie behind their next Granny Smith apple or Idaho potato are already just a click away.