How Far are we from Tracing Every Food Item?

By: Hannah L. Walters

The food industry faces a dilemma. Consumers are more particular than ever about where food comes from, how it was made and how it got to their plate. Sometimes, these details aren’t exactly easy to come by.

Acquiring this information requires slicing through the layers of the food system. The thickest and most opaque of layers lies between a farm and a grocery store. These often impenetrable  layers — the food logistics layers — entail all the warehouses, shipping containers, truck beds and inspection facilities that, say, a box of pasta might pass through. The pasta must be cut, sorted, inspected and boxed. The boxes have to be labeled, arranged, sealed. The boxes must be ushered from one facility to another, to a port, to a warehouse, to a grocery store.

Herein lies the dilemma. The multitude of stops a box of pasta makes to get from the wheat farm to the plate is largely unstandardized and involves many stakeholders using different data systems — if any data systems at all. Not to mention, there’s a prevailing fear of food security threats and exposing company proprietary information to a competitor, both of which makes some food logistics professionals uncomfortable, or unable, to answer the who, what, how and when. Whatever the reasons, however, consumers still want to know: What’s in my food, who handled it and where has it been?

Is there a compromise in sight, and, if so, who’s working on it?

The problem isn’t that technology for tracking food doesn’t exist. In fact, tracking food is commonplace and important for purveyors, importers, exporters and other food industry stakeholders. This information, however, isn’t often available to consumers and might not include other information consumers want to know, like the way a food was processed or handled. The information might also be fragmented or overly specialized for a certain industry, a leg of the journey or another aspect of the food’s journey (such as temperature).

In a 2009 article from Wired, Michael Kaplan describes how a premier restaurant in Las Vegas serves seafood from an Italian village. The seafood is caught just 53 hours before it is served and much of it — such as crabs — is still alive when it reaches chef Paul Bartolotta. The crabs and fish travel by truck to an airport in Milan. The seafood is packed in damp cloth, straw and/or wax paper. The seafood arrives at the Los Angeles airport and is then driven to Las Vegas in a refrigerated truck. At least one fish per container has had a microchip implanted in it, from which the chef can read the data the chip recorded every 20 minutes of the journey to ensure the containers stayed cold enough the entire time.

While the temperature tracking featured in this Wired article is fascinating because of the expediency of the trip and the information value of the microchip, there appears to be no aggregate information about each stop or origin of the seafood. The restaurant's entrees of this speciality food ran about $60, which must internalize some of the monitoring costs. This microchip technology is known as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).  

A 2009 article in the Journal of Food Science describes RFID devices as: “a generic term for technologies that use radio frequency waves to identify an object. RFID enables identification of an object from a distance without requiring a line of sight. RFID tags can incorporate additional data such as details of product and manufacturer and can transmit measured environmental factors such as temperature and relative humidity.”

The microchip used in the Wired article, for example, is one type of RFID, while others known as “passive” RFID are thin stickers on items that are like super-charged barcodes, that wouldn’t require a nearby scanner.

Photo by: Scott Lewis under CC. 

Photo by: Scott Lewis under CC. 

Cost is a major barrier to implementing RFIDs across the supply chain and within consumers’ reach. According to the Journal of Food Science article, a traditional barcode costs less than one cent. The least expensive of RFIDs costs five to ten cents, while the most expensive could cost as much as $100 each. For a company manufacturing millions of boxes of pasta or crackers, increasing the unit cost of the barcode by a minimum of 10 times seems infeasible.

Aside from cost, there are readability issues in the retail environment for RFIDs. The frequency readings from the devices can be disrupted by the fluids in the packaging or even human bodies moving around the tagged items. Other materials, like metal, reflect the radio frequencies, making them difficult to read.

More traditional GPS tracking does exist for suppliers other than high-end restaurants, of course. If you look at trade organization websites, you’ll see that — for a premium — a supplier can log into a portal to track their goods. The information will show GPS locations of container ships, for example.

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) has at least started to address how to create a more robust, aggregate and centralized body of information about food traceability. The IFT created an agency called the Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) with a mission to “become the global resource and authoritative voice on food traceability.” The GFTC strives to be the lone, global source of all traceable information for food. The agency recognizes the incompatibility of data collected by different players in the food system and seeks to overcome these gaps in knowledge.

Yet, in the agency’s FAQ, at the very bottom, the GFTC clearly states: “While customer loyalty programs may enable retailers to inform their customers of food recalls, IFT does not suggest a way to trace what products consumers purchase or consume.” And so consumer access is still curtailed.

But perhaps some companies will be able to bring it all together: develop cutting-edge or RFID technology, transcend poor standardization measures, reassure suppliers and indulge consumer demand for information.

During the 2015 Milan Expo, Barilla pasta, of the Barilla Group, sought to be one of these frontier companies. Barilla displayed boxes of pasta and jars of pasta sauce with QR codes, which consumers could scan with their smartphones to learn the detailed journey of that product and how it was processed, “from the ground to the grocer,” according to a Cisco press release. Cisco was Barilla’s partner in the project, which is called the Safety for Food Initiative.

Photo provided by Official Cisco Representatives. 

Photo provided by Official Cisco Representatives. 

Barilla used Cisco’s Internet of Everything (IoE) to create the technology. Not sure what IoE is? Put simply, the Internet of Everything (IoE) is a network in which almost all objects would be “smart.” A Time article explaining IoE gives a great example of how a slow cooker could be operated remotely using IoE.

Imagine this technology, this connection of inanimate objects to a network, across all industries. Imagine if scanners and machinery in food warehouses could automatically communicate and interact with others, thousands of miles away? While still not fully understood or commonly discussed by the public, the IoE is lauded as the next big thing by many media outlets, such as Wired.  

Despite the promise of IoE, and even though Barilla’s development is quite exciting because of its easy interface and detail, a representative from Cisco stated in an email with Food+City that the QR coded boxes and jars were only limited edition products for the Milan Expo. There’s no timeline for this technology to be in stores. The knowledge at the consumer's fingertips, alas, was only fleeting.

It’s difficult to say whether we are so close, or so very far from having universal and readily available information on individual food items. It seems that only in the last five years or so consumers have begun to push for the level of transparency that they now command. Can technology respond fast enough? With companies like Barilla seeing the opportunity to crack the code to interface friendly and comprehensive traceability on foods, perhaps the high prices and standardization headaches that stand in the way will be chipped away faster than ever before. Now, whether the pioneers will be food corporations with clout, or wry, disruptive startups who roll up their sleeves, is a whole other question.