Startup's stickers identify
the source of food
of Article: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/08/02/MNSK191072.DTL
August 3, 2009
food safety as big as it is, we can give each watermelon its own code so a
consumer can check on the Internet to see where it is grown," said
Ryan Van Groningen of Van Groningen & Sons Farms, which sells
watermelons under the Yosemite Fresh brand.
This new code, called the
HarvestMark, is being developed by the Redwood City startup YottaMark Inc.
at a time when Congress is considering food-safety legislation that could
make some type of tracking system mandatory.
"In the event of a
recall, the Food and Drug Administration can find out where a product came
from and how it got to market," said YottaMark co-founder Elliott
The new tracing system is
one example of how the private sector has responded to recent food-safety
scares, such as the 2006 E. coli outbreak involving spinach.
In advance of any legal
mandate, a few growers have started putting HarvestMark codes on products
like plastic-packaged grapes and strawberries, as well as watermelons.
"We're trying to be
ahead of the game," Van Groningen said.
The HarvestMark is so new
that the growers using it are still running pilot programs to make sure
they can get labels printed with the proper codes and train field crews to
collect accurate information for the computerized database at the heart of
The idea is to enable a
consumer to type the 16-digit tracking code into a locator field at
HarvestMark.com to learn where the product was grown. Depending on the
grower's records and what the farm chooses to reveal, the system could
detail the date and part of the field where the product originated.
UC Davis research
specialist Trevor Suslow, who studies how crops are handled after harvest,
said the spinach E. coli outbreak spurred a whole series of industry
efforts to improve food traceability.
"That was really the
first time the FDA had issued a blanket advisory against a commodity, and a
lot of growers who couldn't possibly have been responsible were greatly
affected," he said.
The economic and
political fallout from that incident prompted a number of produce industry
trade associations to band together to create voluntary standards for
tracking crops from fields to stores.
Dan Vache, a technical
expert with the United Fresh Produce Association, said the standard would
require participating growers to put a tracing code on each case of produce
By 2012, distributors,
including supermarkets and warehouses, would have to make sure that their
computer systems can track each case of produce at every step from the
field to the store or restaurant where it reaches the consumer, Vache said.
Grant said the
HarvestMark was developed almost by accident after the E. coli outbreak.
He said YottaMark was
founded in 2004, and initially developed its tracking labels to help
authenticate electronic goods and pharmaceuticals, in order to combat
But after the spinach
crisis, some of California's biggest producers came across YottaMark's
coding system at a packaging industry trade show and urged the startup to
adapt its technology to agriculture.
"This was a perfect
application we had never thought of," Grant said.
Gordon Robertson is a
vice president with Sun World in Bakersfield, a fresh-fruit shipper that
has started putting the HarvestMark on products like packaged grapes.
Pressure on growers
He said that, independent
of any government mandate, big grocery and warehouse stores have been
pressuring growers to create some way to prove that produce doesn't come
from areas where there have been disease outbreaks.
"If there is a
product recall, you want to be able to identify and communicate to the
government, to the retailer and to the public that this product does not
have to be pulled from the shelves and is safe to eat," he said.
Robertson said the
HarvestMark does more than the industry standard because it can trace an
individual item, not just a case. Consumers can also use it themselves to
find out where food comes from in addition to providing assurance of
"We can actually
build information and trust in our brand," he said.
The tracking system is
not unprecedented. For example, premium San Francisco chocolatemaker
Original Beans prints similar locator codes on its wrappers to show where
the cacao beans in an individual bar were grown.
The House of
Representatives passed a food-safety bill last week that instructed
regulators to come up with better ways to trace all edible products, not
just produce, but did not spell out specific measures. The measure now
heads to the Senate.
Daniel Sumner, director
of the UC Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis, said better food tracing
is a good idea but it can't solve all food-safety concerns.
For instance, he said
processed items, like mixed salads and precut vegetables, are difficult to
trace because they may include produce from different sources.
Sumner also cautioned
against imposing strict requirements, like item-level codes, that might be
too costly or impractical.
"If it's a
watermelon and you can put a sticker on it in the field that's one
thing," he said. "But you can't put a sticker on a walnut."
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