Do You Know Where Your Food Comes From?

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.

Top Ten Produce

“What you need to know about Top Ten Produce is that it’s about people.” This is the first thing that executive director of Top Ten Produce John Bailey said in an interview with Food Safety News. “It’s about know your farmer, know your food,” he says. Top Ten Produce follows a local traceability program, including person, place, and item.

By snapping a picture of the barcode with a cell phone, or entering the data into the computer, consumers will immediately know the farmer who produced that particular food product, his or her name and life story, the farm, as well as information about the product itself. The grower also has the option of including pictures and a video to connect with his consumer.

Top Ten Produce focuses on independent farms. “All of our growers are rugged individualists, typically small, almost exclusively a million dollars or less,” says Bailey. “We’re in 10 states, so it’s rapidly expanding, but at the same time, we’re not seeking out the traditional business that the other companies are going for.”

Bailey advocates focusing on smaller, independent farmers because of the Top Ten Produce personal approach, as it tends to hone in on what a consumer wants. “Today’s consumer wants to support their local growers, they want to support a real person, they want to know the person they’re buying from and trust that person,” says Bailey. “But, not everyone can get to the farmer’s market. So, we have them meet real growers themselves through social media.” Consumers are able to communicate back and forth with every single grower that is growing under the brand.

“Consumers can learn to know their farmer–to know that there’s a real person behind the brand. And, that’s the whole point of Top Ten,” says Bailey. “Be your own brand. Be yourself. You can really be yourself.”

And, for those consumers who use Twitter, they simply have to mention the farmer’s grower number–a state abbreviation and number–and the comments will appear on the grower’s profile. A direct communication can then ensue.

Consumers aren’t the only ones to benefit. Much like HarvestMark and ScoringAg, Top Ten Produce benefits everyone along the food chain. “You can have a recall of a product and it’s going to trace back only to one farm, even if that farm is intermingled in the beginning,” says Bailey. “It’s the precision that the retailer will like.”

And, like the other two systems, Top Ten Produce also works in real-time. It is not the quickness that Bailey believes is essential during a recall, however. Bailey focuses on the preciseness.  Using an analogy with cars, Bailey suggests that each food item has a specific identity, just like a car has a one of a kind, distinguishable Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).  If a factory produces thousands of an item, consumers are able to identify which one product is under recall.  “Our recall is specific to the farm,” says Bailey.

While it does have plans for any product used on a small independent farm to become part of the system, Top Ten Produce currently only focuses on fresh produce. And unlike HarvestMark where there’s no limit to where you can source your product from, Top Ten Produce zeroes in on solely American farms. “We’re really encouraging local search systems,” says Bailey. “It’s nice to build a relationship with people in your own community that give back to your own community.”

Bailey acknowledges the fact that that there are many farmers who resist these trace back programs. “[Farmers] are running a small operation on a thin margin,” says Bailey. “It’s going to cost them to get a number to even begin the program. Then, they have to figure out how to use the program. They’re going to set it up, so there’s a significant capital contribution and tremendous time contribution for something they’re not getting any value out of.”

Bailey suggests, however, that Top Ten Produce provides a return investment on a system that farmers believe they get no benefit from. “We connect them directly to their consumer, so now they can talk to the actual people buying their produce,” says Bailey.