When the E.coli spinach scare swept the nation, we talked a bit about the importance of knowing the backstory about the things we eat and buy. The best way most of us have to do this is by purchasing food directly from the grower at farmer's markets and through CSAs.
But in Japan, it's becoming more and more common to be able to trace the history of your food using your cell phone. The Japanese Food Safety Commission, which was established in 2001 after a Mad Cow Disease (BSE) outbreak, has been working to put food safety in the hands of the consumer by tagging products (even fresh farm produce) with RFID or QR codes that can be read with a cell phone. It's something we talked about a bit last year, but the idea seems to be gaining wider favor, as most Japanese phones produced today come equipped with a QR code reader. According to FOODEX JAPAN's Trend & Info page:
Consumers can trace back the vegetables until the day of harvest, when and where they were packed, how they were shipped, etc. Many of the local producers have followed this example and some even go as far as displaying a picture of the farmer to bring a sense of proximity as additional reassurance to the consumer.
The Food Safety Commission has found that Japanese consumers are choosing to purchase local food over imported food primarily because of the improved ease of traceability. For foreign food producers who want to capture the Japanese market, the ability to offer a backstory through technology increases their chances of success. Of course, we'd argue that any cause for purchasing more food locally is a worthy cause, but it's an interesting finding and it's driving companies -- domestic and foreign -- to take accountability for their practices.
One frequently-cited case study into the use of QR codes on food is Ishii Foods Corporation, which has been posting information about their products online since 2002, "including the retraceable history of the raw materials, the ingredients, production, etc." Digital graphs like those that Ishii puts out are even available on display screens in some supermarket aisles.
This trend makes me wonder what kind of cultural differences make knowing a product's backstory so much more apparently valuable in Japan than in the U.S. Both countries have had nasty foodborne illness outbreaks over the years, and both have relatively good systems in place for regulating quality and safety. Yet it's hard to imagine the standard American shopper taking their QR-equipped phone to CostCo to be sure what they're bringing home to the family passes muster. If we were to gain more advanced means of tracing our food's history, if we were able to see a photo of the farmer who grew our lettuce, would we? What's the key factor in getting people to appeciate the equation food + backstory = increased probability of good health?
If our phones came so equipped and our products were so labeled, we would check. Perhaps if bar codes contained more information, or RFID became widespread, we might begin to carry scanners (or better yet, we could use the wall-mounted price checkers, at places like Target). All of it would have to very cheap to implement in the supply chain or mandated like ingredient labels, because I don't think most people are willing to endure an increase in the price of their food for the sake of transparency about it's origins.
This technology is available NOW in the US and is being used by some companies. Visit http://www.ScoringAg.com to see how it works. With the ScoringAg system, one can use the phone scanner, or simply type the ScoringAg identification number into the search window on ScoringAg's home page and the origin of the produce inside the package is available within seconds. The consumer can help pull this technology into the marketplace by telling your grocer you really want to have this available in his store. The store's private brands are a great reason why this may appeal to the grocer. It would also be extremely valuable during a recall. Recalls could be specific for a particular field where the problem originated and not require that all produce from that source be removed from sale. Perhaps Ms. Rich would be interested in doing a story on ScoringAg. If so, she should contact Dr. Brunhilde Merker at ScoringAg.
I am an American living in Japan and can tell you that there is a fundamental difference in the basic attitude towards food. The appreciation for food quality is much higher in Japan, despite American obsession with calories, carbs and the macro-nutrient ingredients.
This is one case where it is not about the technology.
I would be willing to bet that the Japanese care more about where the life cycle of their food because gardening and agriculture is so integral to their culture. And schools don't hire landscapers...instead, the students are the groundskeepers. Start 'em young!
FYI, a great site and newsletter is Japan for Sustainability, disseminating environmental information from Japan. http://www.japanfs.org/