The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in six (roughly 48 million people) get sick annually from foodborne diseases. Along with various scares and recalls, public awareness of food has increased due to popular cooking shows on The Food Channel, the prevalence of celebrity chefs, and documentary films such asFood, Inc. that peek behind the marketing façade of our industrial food system. This awareness is evidenced in the popularity of farmers’ markets as well as a growing demand for organic produce and free-range, grass-fed, humanely treated farm animals.

At one time, respected brand names were all the assurance the buying public needed. This is no longer the case. Consumers today routinely value reviews from people like themselves over the carefully crafted advertising copy from manufacturers. Skepticism has replaced trust, and an increasing number of people want to know exactly where their food comes from and how it was grown or raised. The new term for this istraceability.

The interest in traceability has led to ways of assisting food shoppers in tracing the food they are buying, and is influencing cuisine through a lengthening list of chefs who are now demanding traceability in the ingredients they use.

Traceability in supermarket aisles

For consumers the pertinent question would be, how could grocery shoppers examine a produce or meat item and trace its source in order to ensure that the item has been produced within desirable parameters?

A system called HarvestMark, developed by YottaMark—a company specializing in tracking and authentication of products—is already making this possible for some 3 billion items in stores.

HarvestMark consists of a code printed on the label of a product. The code can be scanned by a shopper with an iPhone or Android smartphone, and data is then immediately available showing the grower, growing methods used, and other pertinent information about the product. In the case of animal products, the methods employed in raising and feeding can be checked. It is also possible to enter the code on the HarvestMark website to obtain the same information.

HarvestMark came about as a response to the expanding awareness of food sources. “I started the company originally to provide traceability and authentication for products,” Elliott Grant, founder and chief marketing officer of YottaMark, toldOrganic Connections. “In about 2006, primarily after the spinach recall issue, we focused the company more heavily on the food sector; it became apparent that there was a need for better transparency and traceability back to the farm. We already had the technology developed, so we really applied ourselves to the food industry.”

HarvestMark is designed to make it easy on everyone—in fact, the company does all the “heavy lifting” itself. “We try to make it look very simple,” Grant said. “My analogy is it’s like a duck on a pond; we’re gliding effortlessly on a surface but underneath we’re paddling like crazy. We host all the data and provide the communication channel. If you’re a farmer in Mexico, information technology is probably not your forte. We take the entire burden off the grower of handling the technology side; we made it really simple. It’s very easy for them to upload data and get data back.

“First we work with the growers on the farm to implement technology that allows us to capture the harvest information, whether they’re packing strawberries in the field or mushrooms or lettuce on a packing line. This could be anywhere in America or Mexico, or Chile or Argentina or Peru; we’re all over the world now. We furnish the farmer with technology to upload the harvest information to our secure servers. The farmer is then provided with a sticker that has a unique serial number on it. As that sticker on the product makes its way through the supply chain, anybody can query it along the way and access our database.

“The final part of the chain is the shopper. In addition to being able to scan items in stores, a shopper, for example, might eat strawberries and say, ‘Wow, these were just terrific strawberries,’ or ‘This banana was wonderful’; or, on the other hand, they may say, ‘These mushrooms went off too quickly.’ That feedback goes to the grower; so we can provide a two-way communication channel. The advantage for the grower is they can see the feedback based on what they actually grew. Thus, rather than just having somebody calling up saying, ‘I loved your strawberries,’ or ‘I hated your mushrooms,’ the grower can now be linked to a particular seed variety on a particular day, picked by a particular crew; and we can even tell them how old it was and where it was eaten. So it’s a much better way of getting growers information that they can actually use.”

It’s obvious from the number of items bearing the mark that food companies are already seeing the value. One company, Coleman Natural Foods, has just implemented the HarvestMark for their Petaluma Poultry line so that their consumers can be confident of the products.

“We really wanted to get the word out about our practices and our products and give consumers a connection to where their food comes from,” Mike Leventini, president of Petaluma Poultry, toldOrganic Connections. “HarvestMark allows us to do that. Our company is dedicated to providing families with all-natural and organic food products; we dont produce any of what are called conventional food products at all.”

Leventini sees a substantial benefit to companies implementing this type of technology. “I think whenever you can differentiate yourself from your competition and further help the consumer understand where the food is coming from—what the farm looks like, what the company’s practices are, what their protocols are, how they’re treating their animals, how they run their farms—it drives a lasting relationship with the consumer and continues to drive separation from the competition.”

Like many others, Leventini has observed the rising public interest in knowing the sources of the food they are purchasing and consuming. “I think people are becoming more and more aware of what they eat, and recently how what they eat is being raised,” he remarked. “An example of this concern was seen on the West Coast with Proposition 2,* and this showed that people are paying attention. Anytime you can allow consumers a quick, easy way to peek in and see where their chicken came from, how it was raised—those kinds of things—I think it’s really important.”

Coleman Natural Foods plans on utilizing HarvestMark on other of their products in the future.

Read more from Organic Connections

Local and traceable haute cuisine

Some of the major pioneer work in traceability has been and is being performed by top chefs. There are a number of celebrity chefs who have for some years specialized in local cuisine and knowing exactly where their ingredients come from, including California’s Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck and Suzanne Goin; New York’s Dan Barber; Chicago’s Rick Bayless; and Atlanta’s Kevin Gillespie.

TRACE restaurant in Austin—part of the W Hotel, Austin—was founded on the principle of serving local cuisine, the origin of which could be traced (hence the name). TRACE’s mission statement reads: “Trace is committed to creating an enriching and thoughtful culinary experience by fusing the vibrant, local personality with our commitment to integrity and socially responsible food. Our high-quality, conscious cuisine is prepared from locally foraged and sourced, sustainable ingredients—or obtained through national partners with well-known sustainable practices. We hope you’ll enjoy your meal, which can be confidently traced back to its natural origins.”

Interestingly, the first person hired for the restaurant was an experienced local food “forager” who would be responsible for providing the restaurant with high-quality locally sourced ingredients. “When I heard that the restaurant was being planned, I contacted Starwood, the parent company, and told them that if they were going to do this concept, they needed someone like me,” Valerie Broussard, TRACE food and beverage buyer and forager, toldOrganic Connections. “I was already familiar with the farmers, and I had built these relationships and lived that lifestyle myself personally, anyway. I like to shop at the farmers’ markets and there are a lot of things in my refrigerator that people outside of this area might not even recognize. They’re not mass-produced, mass-marketed types of products, and I actually buy much of my own food from people who made it themselves. That’s what I wanted to help this restaurant achieve. For this kind of concept it takes a little more time, and it’s an involved process to dig deeper than most chefs have time for. I’m sort of an extension of the chef in that way.”

The company then sought out and found achef de cuisinewho was passionate about locally sourced food and hired Chef Paul Hargrove, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who had already made a considerable name for himself as the executivesous-chefat Café Boulud Palm Beach and at the James Beard Award-winning restaurant Daniel in New York.

“My mentality comes from the need for a better relationship between the world that I’m in as a chef and the world that farmers are in,” Hargrove toldOrganic Connections. “Trying to find that is what’s most important to me. I jumped on the concept of TRACE, because those are things that I’m really passionate about.”

Within such a concept, keeping a restaurant up and running day to day creates, to say the least, a fast-paced environment. Hence the work between Paul and Valerie must, of necessity, be hand in glove.

“The chef develops his menus based on what we know will be plentiful,
Broussard said. “For example, in the last few weeks I’ve been e-mailing farmers and asking, ‘What are you putting in the ground now?’ or, ‘What seeds are you starting, so we know what we can expect 60 days from now?’ Then we can forecast accordingly and the chef can develop the menu based on that.”

“Valerie will call around to farmers she knows,” Hargrove explained. “She puts together a spreadsheet for me, showing me the availability from them for the week. When she’s out visiting farmers’ markets, she shoots me back messages with pictures, and I’ll instruct her to buy ‘2 pounds of that’ or ‘5 pounds of this.’”

To the future of food

Hargrove is happy to see the growing trend among chefs to espouse locally and sustainably grown—and traceable—ingredients. “I think it’s the responsibility of all of us as chefs,” said Hargrove. “Especially if you are a celebrity chef and you care about quality ingredients, quality products, it’s your duty and responsibility to spread that message and spread that word. I do here. And I’m glad to see that chefs have gone from being people that farmers hated to work with to people that farmers are starting to like to work with.”

“I think that if we don’t support what we have now, we won’t continue to grow in the right direction,” Broussard concluded. “There are a lot of different reasons for buying locally, and one of them is supporting the economy in which you live. I also think that will allow more variety, and it makes it possible for people to do things on a smaller scale than if they are forced to go big and industrial.”