Avoiding recalls by tracking food from seed to supermarket

  • Photo 1 of 12

    A worker packs raspberries at Marz Farms in Oxnard, Calif. One picker can pack as many as 55 boxes of berries a day. Each box has 12 clamshells -- and each one of those clamshells has a unique code tracking it all the way to the supermarket.

    - Jennifer Collins / Marketplace

  • Photo 2 of 12

    Driscoll's Production Supervisor Moises Hurtado picks a few raspberries.

    - Jennifer Collins / Marketplace

  • Photo 3 of 12

    Driscoll's Production Supervisor Moises Hurtado holds a raspberry. He says the fruit starts to break down the minute it is removed from the white conical stem. The berries are grown outside under tunnel-like coverings that protect them from the elements.

    - Jennifer Collins / Marketplace

  • Photo 4 of 12

    Picked raspberries wait to be packed at Marz Farms in Oxnard, Calif. Marz is one of several growers that supply Driscoll's with the berries it distributes to stores and restaurants around the globe.

    - Jennifer Collins / Marketplace

  • Photo 5 of 12

    A worker picks raspberries in Marz Farms in Oxnard, Calif. She's one of 12-15 people on a crew. Driscoll's tracking system is so specific, officials can often keep track of the crew that picked berries long after they've made it to market.

    - Jennifer Collins / Marketplace

  • Photo 6 of 12

    The time is marked on a pallet of berries at Driscoll's cooling tunnel in Oxnard. Each pallet has to be cooled for two hours to best preserve the berries. This hand-marking system is one of few left-overs from the old pen-and-paper system Driscoll's used in the past. Today, even the cooling time is recorded electronically as workers use hand-held scanners to enter each step the berries take through the processing plant.

    - Jennifer Collins / Marketplace

  • Photo 7 of 12

    Operations supervisor Ray Pena tracks the journey of one pallet of berries from the farm to its distribution truck.

    - Jennifer Collins / Marketplace

  • Photo 8 of 12

    A worker at the processing plant scans berries as he unloads them from the field. At each step through the processing plant, berries are scanned and their journey is recorded electronically.

    - Jennifer Collins / Marketplace

  • Photo 9 of 12

    Elliott Grant founder of YottaMark, which developed the HarvestMark food tracking system, scans a barcode on a sweet potato, demonstrating how consumers can trace food using their iPhones.

    - Jennifer Collins / Marketplace

  • Photo 10 of 12

    Elliott Grant, founder of HarvestMark, points out several packages of mushrooms with his company's food tracking codes. The HarvestMark codes are available on much of the private label produce in the nationwide Kroger chain, which includes Ralphs, Fred Meyer and Food 4 Less stores.

    - Jennifer Collins / Marketplace

  • Photo 11 of 12

    An employee at a Ralphs supermarket in Los Angeles stacks bananas. HarvestMark is still developing labels small enough to track bulk produce like bananas, apples and oranges.

    - Jennifer Collins / Marketplace

  • Photo 12 of 12

    iPhone screenshots show the HarvestMark app.

    - itunes.apple.com

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.

About the author

Jennifer Collins is a reporter for the Marketplace portfolio of programs. She is based in Los Angeles, where she covers media, retail, the entertainment industry and the West Coast.


I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...

Sustainability Coverage

  • The Kendeda Fund
  • Wealth & Poverty Coverage

  • The Ford Foundation