Imagine that you’re in the produce section at the grocery store. You pick up a container of leafy greens with a QR (quick response) code on the label and you pull out your smart phone. The camera on the device instantly reads the code and tells you exactly where and how the greens were grown, when they were harvested, and who owns the farm. Your phone also recommends recipes and gives you the option of automatically adding the other ingredients you need to your digital shopping list. You decide to buy the greens. You take them home and put them in the fridge. The next day, you get a text message alert: “The product you purchased has been recalled. Throw it away and click here for a full refund.” You toss the greens and breathe a sigh of relief. This is not the future of food traceability, this is what is possible today and what shoppers will increasingly be able to do with any item in the grocery store. As supply chains have gotten more complex and foodborne illness outbreaks continue to take a toll, many food companies have sought to improve traceability, or their ability to rapidly track products from field to customer. Right now most traceability is at the case-level, which means codes are used to track food products in bulk, but once companies have the ability to track product, and capture key data along the way, they can take this one step further and make information available to consumers at the item-level.

The Food Safety News traceability series is sponsored by Infor.
Giving consumers access to more information via QR codes on individual packages can be win-win. Shoppers like that they can trace their food to the source and it gives food manufacturers and growers a way to interface with their end consumers. There are clear marketing benefits—brands can use certain apps to collect feedback from shoppers, connect via social media, up sell, or offer coupons –but the food safety benefits are also significant. “Ideally, at the consumer-level they will be able to scan the code and up pops a picture of the farmer, recipes, and all the things you want them to have,” said Bill Dewey, of Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington state, who chairs the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference’s traceability committee. “And then appropriate health officials could use a password to see even more details about the product, including HACCP records.” YottaMark, Inc., whose food traceability platform, HarvestMark, has so far made five billion fresh food items traceable for companies like Driscoll’s Berries and Coleman Natural, has seen the public health benefit of consumer-level traceability first hand. “The sophisticated companies are combining marketing and food safety,” said Elliott Grant, chief technology officer and founder of YottaMark. Several of the company’s customers have been through recalls since gaining full supply chain traceability and have been able to limit the damage. During one recall of leafy greens, 15 percent of consumers who looked up the product using HarvestMark did indeed have recalled greens and were able to take action. In the wake of food safety incidents, companies can also utilize their connection to the consumers affected or inconvenienced to rebuild trust by sharing detailed information or even offering free product. “We want to create end consumer confidence. It’s also about bouncing back,” said Christian Hutter, of Junction Solutions, a technology company that has a traceability platform called CLEARthru, which aims to be more interactive with shoppers. With consumers seeking more and more information about where their food comes from, there is now a flurry of consumer-level traceability initiatives. Last summer, Top 10 Produce, a company that specializes in traceability solutions for small and independent farms, received a $100,000 small business innovation research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study how independent growers can benefit from a mobile commerce platform to sell source-verified food. The grant also pays for more growers to get their own QR code. In an effort to bounce back from the devastating Gulf oil spill and differentiate from the flood of seafood imports, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission has launched “Gulf Seafood Trace,” a voluntary program using Trace Register, a traceability company based in Seattle. The program allows consumers to trace the fish back to where it was caught and get food safety information. Applegate, the fast-growing natural and organic meat company, has what they call “barn codes” that allow consumers to look up their package of meat and find videos about the farmer that raised the turkeys for their lunchmeat. HarvestMark recently conducted a major fresh food traceability pilot project with a major retailer in China that included adding QR labels to individual food products and noting they could be traced back to the farm. “By all measures, it’s a wild success,” said Grant, the founder of YottaMark, Inc. “Sales doubled for these products because there is such paranoia.” Taylor Shellfish plans to pilot QR tags for oysters at its retail shop in Seattle. When customers order a variety oysters on the half shell, the tags, printed on laminated paper, will be stuck in the ice behind each one. Diners will be able to scan the codes and get information about where each oyster is from. “Today, if you’re lucky wait staff might draw on a napkin to indicate where they came from,” said Dewey. Where Food Comes From, a leading third party certification company that verifies many of Whole Foods marketing standards, now has a retail focused “source verified” program that also uses a QR code. The company has a form on its website so consumers can easily request that their grocery stores carry Where Food Comes From approved products. Hutter, of CLEARthru, predicts that, while future traceability regulations might help push the ball forward, ultimately consumer demand will drive widespread adoption. “We know consumers are going to demand better information in real time,” he said. Consumers interested in scanning food to trace it back to the source should start by downloading a QR scanner in their smartphone app store.