For years, the term “food traceability” has permeated the media, and there has been a greater emphasis on consumers’ right to know where their food comes from.
With the high profile of foodborne illness outbreaks that caused the infamous case of Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old girl who was left paralyzed after eating an E. coli-contaminated hamburger produced by Cargill and the Peanut Corporation of America’s demise after its products were determined to be the source of a nationwide Salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds, and the weekly litany of food recalls for contamination with pathogenic bacteria, allergens, or for other causes, consumers are paying more attention to the origins of their food.
With this in mind, Food Safety News set out to learn more about food trace back and traceability. We spoke with representatives from Scoring Ag, HarvestMark, Top Ten Produce, Recall InfoLink, and HCL Technologies about what they’re doing to help the food industry trace products from farm to consumer. We’ll be featuring an interview with each in this series on traceability.
Another leader in food traceability is HarvestMark, which also provides insight to consumers, retailers, wholesalers, distributors, and everyone else involved in the food chain. With 1.5 billion items under its wing, HarvestMark has made headway in the last 18 months.
Like ScoringAg, HarvestMark aids the food channel in product ambiguity in case of a recall. “HarvestMark is like a license plate,” says Elliot Grant, founder of HarvestMark. “It gives every item of produce a unique identity.”
Logging onto the HarvestMark Website or using the iPhone app gives consumers the opportunity to explore information the handler chooses to share with them. This information can range from date of harvest to pesticides used, in addition to all the traditional harvest event data from a critical safety perspective, according to Grant. “We can give you information you can’t find anywhere else about the product in your hand,” says Grant.
According to Grant, HarvestMark works in conjunction with approximately 35 labeling and packaging converters across the world, who also use the technology. “Because we’re implemented on labels and clamshells, we have to work with a lot of the label manufacturers that the growers use. We spent the last few years working with these label companies, getting them equipped,” says Grant. “Nobody even comes close to that kind of ecosystem.”
HarvestMark focuses much of its attention on item-level traceability, which centers mainly on individual items rather than cases. And, the benefits of this are boundless, according to Grant. After conducting five research studies in the last four years, Grant says the consumer they know favors traceable food. “Something like 70 to 80 percent of people considerably say they prefer traceable food,” says Grant. “And, when we ask them why, they say it gives them peace of mind.” With the grower willing to share information, the consumer feels confident and possesses greater trust with the food they put away.
According to Grant, HarvestMark also gives consumers the ability to provide feedback about products to the grower–positive or negative. Consumers can share comments with the producer or retailer, and the producer can share this information with the retailer as well. Farmers receive messages that inform them with the time and location that the consumer has eaten the product, in addition to when and where the grower picked the item.
“If you’re a strawberry shipper, for example, you obtain all these variables–what do I plant, how do I water, how do I harvest, how do I train my crew–to provide fresh high quality produce in the consumer’s kitchen,” says Grant. “It’s very hard for the farmer to optimize that without getting feedback from the consumer.”
If consumers trace a product, but choose not to provide any feedback, HarvestMark captures an IP address, as well as the date of the tracing, and is able to notify the farmer how long it takes a particular product to reach the market, as well as the quality of the item when it arrived. “For the first time, the grower can see all the way through the supply chain,” says Grant.
And, all these benefits don’t even include the food safety advantages.
“From a business point of view, most food is perfectly safe day in and day out,” says Grant. “Real value for the consumer is peace of mind, loyalty, and feedback. For the farmer, it’s feedback that is meaningful and for the retailer, for them to be able to improve quality and freshness is their goal.”
According to Grant, HarvestMark possesses a couple of data centers where they host all the information for their customers. Every item that is harvested and shipped gets a record of where it went and where it was picked. When a consumer checks, the system tracks that data as well. “In many ways, we’re a data management company,” says Grant.
Consumer information is kept anonymous unless the consumer chooses to provide their name and address. If they choose to remain anonymous, the information is received simply as an IP address. Consumers also have the option of leaving their e-mail address, in case they wish to open a much more personal and direct connection with their grower.
In addition to the tech-savvy iPhone app, HarvestMark has a rating button, where consumers can rate products. This allows growers to see how they stack up against others in the U.S., like with the Netflix rating system.
As a major player in the produce traceability world, HarvestMark is able to provide nationwide support. And, due to their widespread influence, HarvestMark has become a trust brand in traceability, gaining a large network of partners and retailers who employ the technology in their factories.
Similar to ScoringAg, HarvestMark also works in real-time. “When there’s a recall, we want to be able to tell a consumer right away if their product is affected or not,” says Grant. In fact, when Freshway Farms recalled Romaine lettuce, traces on salad on HarvestMark appeared within the hour that the recall was announced to the press. “We were able to put up a message that read ‘yes, there is a recall going on right now. It affects Freshway Farms, and this bag is not affected,'” explains Grant. “We were able to reinforce the confidence in those consumers that the bag they bought from that brand was fine to eat.”
And, much like ScoringAg, HarvestMark is cost effective. It costs a fraction of a penny to put a HarvestMark code on a product, according to Grant. And, there is minimal hardware required as well.
HarvestMark not only informs consumers if there is a safety problem, but also provides notification when there’s a new traceable item in local supermarkets and tips on how to choose specific products.
“Traceability gives the shipper and operator information that they can use to make their products fresher, get to the market faster, respond to consumers’ feedback, and make choices about variety, harvesting, and the shipper who has implemented traceability. As a grower, there are not many ways to distinguish yourself from another, aside from competing from seasonality, Grant suggests. “Traceability provides a really powerful source of differentiation in both consumer preferen
ce and in operations,” he says.