Friday, November 24, 2006

Using Cell Phones for Food Traceability

When the E.coli spinach scare swept the nation, we talked a bit about the importance of knowing the backstory about the things we eat and buy. Article PhotoThe best way most of us have to do this is by purchasing food directly from the grower at farmer's markets and through CSAs.
But in Japan, it's becoming more and more common to be able to trace the history of your food using your cell phone. The Japanese Food Safety Commission, which was established in 2001 after a Mad Cow Disease (BSE) outbreak, has been working to put food safety in the hands of the consumer by tagging products (even fresh farm produce) with RFID or QR codes that can be read with a cell phone. It's something we talked about a bit last year, but the idea seems to be gaining wider favor, as most Japanese phones produced today come equipped with a QR code reader. According to FOODEX JAPAN's Trend & Info page:
Consumers can trace back the vegetables until the day of harvest, when and where they were packed, how they were shipped, etc. Many of the local producers have followed this example and some even go as far as displaying a picture of the farmer to bring a sense of proximity as additional reassurance to the consumer.
The Food Safety Commission has found that Japanese consumers are choosing to purchase local food over imported food primarily because of the improved ease of traceability. For foreign food producers who want to capture the Japanese market, the ability to offer a backstory through technology increases their chances of success. Of course, we'd argue that any cause for purchasing more food locally is a worthy cause, but it's an interesting finding and it's driving companies -- domestic and foreign -- to take accountability for their practices.
One frequently-cited case study into the use of QR codes on food is Ishii Foods Corporation, which has been posting information about their products online since 2002, "including the retraceable history of the raw materials, the ingredients, production, etc." Digital graphs like those that Ishii puts out are even available on display screens in some supermarket aisles.
This trend makes me wonder what kind of cultural differences make knowing a product's backstory so much more apparently valuable in Japan than in the U.S. Both countries have had nasty foodborne illness outbreaks over the years, and both have relatively good systems in place for regulating quality and safety. Yet it's hard to imagine the standard American shopper taking their QR-equipped phone to CostCo to be sure what they're bringing home to the family passes muster. If we were to gain more advanced means of tracing our food's history, if we were able to see a photo of the farmer who grew our lettuce, would we? What's the key factor in getting people to appeciate the equation food + backstory = increased probability of good health?


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