Kai Ryssdal: The food news out of Japan, the problems with contamination of some of the vegetables near the Daiichi plant, was actually a pretty simple food supply problem to solve. There were only so many possible sources of radiation nearby.
The last time there was a big food supply problem here, though -- E. coli in spinach a few years ago -- it took more than two weeks to figure out where in the production process the contamination happened. In the meantime, hundreds of people got sick, three died and spinach growers lost millions of dollars. Afterward, Congress passed a law requiring that stores, growers and distributors be able to trace every stop between the farm and store shelves.
And that, reports Marketplace's Jennifer Collins, has created a whole new kind of business.
Jennifer Collins: We've all played that supermarket guessing game: Squeezing, smelling and eyeballing the food -- all in hopes of getting some idea of how fresh it really is. What if you could track that $5 box of raspberries from the field where it was picked to your grocery store cart?
Elliott Grant founded a company that tracks meat and produce the way FedEx tracks packages. He says people would be surprised to find out how often food changes hands by the time it reaches the store.
Elliott Grant: The produce industry is amazingly complex. And the stuff just flies through the supply chain.
Grant created his first tracking system about five years ago for pharmaceuticals and semiconductors.
Grant: In 2006, when there was that terrible spinach outbreak, we happened to have the right technology and we quickly realized that our technology was going to solve this problem.
So Grant rolled out HarvestMark. Today it's used by 2,500 farms in North and South America. And its coded labels can be found on everything from watermelon to chicken -- and traced by everyone from the guy in the warehouse to a shopper with an iPhone.
Grant: Uh, these Driscoll's raspberries, I traced those to... back to Oxnard. Marz farms in Oxnard, Calif. Actually not far from here at all.
But most produce travels hundreds of miles before it gets to your supermarket.
Dan Vache heads up supply chain management at the United Fresh Produce Association. He says new food safety regulations that roll out this year will require a point-by-point tracking even as the food changes hands. And that creates an opportunity.
Dan Vache: Vendors or solution providers smell a little blood in the water and say you know what, there is an economy out here we can take advantage of because its going to be new business.
Vache says Microsoft, IBM and lots of other companies are all trying to get into the market with software and bookkeeping programs. HarvestMark costs about a quarter of a penny for every tracked package. For Driscoll's -- remembers those raspberries -- that adds up to more than $100,000 a year. At a Driscoll's cooling station in Oxnard, dozens of employees all carry hand scanners that they use to record when the berries are unloaded, checked for quality, put into the cooler, and loaded onto the truck for delivery.
Operations supervisor Ray Pena says HarvestMark has transformed what was a color-coded, pen-and-paper system into a high-tech, easily searchable record-keeping operation.
Ray Pena: We're faster. We provide better customer service and data that goes into the system is probably about 98 percent accurate. I want to say 100, but you know, we're human.
Driscoll's marketing manager Kim Kulchycki says the company's investment in the tracking system is nothing compared to what a recall would involve.
Kim Kulchycki: If there were to be a quality issue -- which of course we try to avoid -- but if there is a quality issue, we would absolutely know the process that this berry went though and we could trace all of those steps.
She says that's the kind of knowledge that can keep one bad batch of spinach from bringing down the whole market.
I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.