Hundreds of established and start-up companies are working on using big data and technology to trace food from farm to table. Who benefits from this boom?
Food traceability is the concept of tracking food along its journey from farm to table. A great deal of data can theoretically be pulled from this journey, including "born on" dates, farm origin, processing details, packing facilities, transportation routes, and the existence of pathogens or allergens in the food. Other food safety technologies focus on the equipment or the procedures, like those measuring temperature on delivery trucks, monitoring cleaning and canning procedures, or checking packaging seals. Some new technologies will enable rapid recall responses in case of food-borne illnesses. We aren't there yet, but millions of dollars are being poured into the small but growing food traceability and safety industry.
What will profitable food traceability technologies look like? And who will food traceability benefit? In some ways, we have more traceability at restaurants now than we do when shopping at a grocery store. Many restaurants (especially the ubiquitous "farm to table" ones I love) list the source of the star ingredients on a menu. A growing percentage of consumers want to know more about the food they buy to put on their own chef's table. Does that make the end user the customer for this technology? I don't think so. Your average grocery shopper won't be buying expensive technology to determine their steak's origin any time soon.
The question of who benefits from food traceability is related to the question of who is responsible for food safety. Is it the farmer? The processor? The packager? The transportation company? The retailer? The consumer? All of the above? Smart sensors placed with produce in the truck can track temperature, moisture, and time on the journey from farm to market and relay that information to a retailer. This technology might mean safer produce for the retailer to sell. It could result in increased costs for the transportation company. Such trackers could also mean less of the farmer's produce is sold, meaning the farmer earns less money. On the other hand, the ability to trace food along its journey enables all entities, from farmer to seller, to meet safety requirements, ensure fresh products, and respond more quickly in case of a product recall. The challenge for this technology is to create added value all along the supply chain.
Several start-up companies are tackling this problem head on with food traceability technology. Here are just a few that have caught my eye:
- Trimble/Harvestmark provides food traceability software and mobile apps to enable food producers, distributers, and retailers to utilize food data in order to meet safety requirements, secure their supply line, and ensure product quality.
- FarmersMarket.Com is an Indianapolis-based technology company aimed at increasing access to local produce. A new product, called CropStalker, is a field mapping and record keeping system that provides food traceability using those records by placing a unique code on food package labels.
- Verigo is a cloud-based cold chain monitoring system with software and apps to assist the healthcare and food industries to provide temperature-controlled products.
- Fresh Surety produces small sensors that travel with food from farm to retailer, monitoring the conditions in which it travels by measuring the metabolites related to the condition of the produce.
- Nima is a portable gluten tester.
- Astrona Biotechnologies is building a detector to be employed during every phase of food production from field to table, allowing customers to screen products in less than an hour.
- TruFish offers DNA testing of sample fish from shipping batches to provide species identification and accurate labeling.