Thursday, March 15, 2007

 

Food Information Services and "Produce Provenance"

In my last post I wrote about the new program in "Information and Service Design" that we've started at UC Berkeley and about the Symposium we held on March 2 to mark the ISD "coming out" party. Eleven graduate students in our School of Information presented their research, and every one of their papers is worth reading, so if I felt the need to blog every day I'd probably write about every one of them. But I don't so I probably won't.

Nevertheless, a paper by Jessica Kline titled

The Future of Food Information Services


has turned out to be remarkably prescient, so I've decided to write about it. In her abstract Jessica wrote:

With growing attention to E. coli outbreaks and mad cow disease, consumers are increasingly questioning the food they eat. In response, many in the food industry are beginning to provide both transparent and convenient information regarding a food's history. Many small scale farms recognize this needed service and have created blogs that explain general farming principles, provide photos of the land, animals, and equipment, and portray the daily lives of farmers and their families. This paper describes these current information services provided to consumers and predicts the future direction of these vital services.

And in her presentation at the Symposium, Jessica brought down the house when she said that "I don't just want information about food. I want information about MY food."

I thought these ideas were clever but a little speculative. I've written about "information supply chains" before, but location and temperature tracking of 20-foot containers on huge cargo ships seemed pretty different from tracking food intended for consumers.

However, in the last week I've read a couple of articles and found some web sites that suggest that there really is something pretty revolutionary going on with food information services to enable tracking and tracing of food to specific farms or even to specific parts of a field.

Earlier this week a story in the Wall Street Journal called Tailing Virulent Veggies (13 March 2007) described how Dole Foods has started using RFID tags on boxes of green vegetables to track them from the fields where they were picked all the way through their processing. This was in response to the E. coli contaminated spinach that implicated Dole last fall, but the RFID tags aren't yet economical enough to go on individual bags. However, according to a short article with the smart title of "Produce Provenance" in Business Week, (19 March 2007) Dole has started to put codes on those pesky stickers that clutter individual pieces of fruits. You can enter the code on a web site to link a particular bunch of organic bananas to the farm in Colombia where they come from (like the Don Pedro Farm, code 776 .

So Jessica is on to something, and I'm going to encourage her to do some more thinking about these food information services. I think an important next step will be the development of information and process standards so that applications that use food information can be easily and robustly built. I feel a joke lurking somewhere about "mash-ups" with potato data, but I just can't make it work.

-Bob Glushko






Comments:
I just saw the end of an appalling story on nbc news about a particular wholesale produce depot in LA - summary can be found here.

If by chance an RFID tagged box or bag points to this place, I would suggest immediate disposal!
 
Bob, what about a "sustainability" information in the provenance. Yes, the e coli application is compelling but there's also the explosion of interest in how our food is grown e.g. pesticides or no, fertilizer or no, corn versus grass-fed. Carbon footprint and all that. The footprint accumulates of course as the food is processed and transported. This sort of information is perhaps more static, less voluminous than temperature telemetry. But it's connected.
 
That is a best platform to know the food information services. The footprint accumulates of course as the food is processed and transported.
 
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