In the wake of the 2006 E. coli outbreak in California spinach, and other more recent outbreaks of food-borne illness in fresh produce, consumers are increasingly concerned about food safety.
The huge popularity of neighborhood farmer's markets across the U.S. is largely a result of shoppers feeling more comfortable purchasing produce from small growers they can actually meet. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Bill Patterson, a senior analyst with Mintel, an international research firm that follows food trends, said, “A lot of the battle is building public confidence. People want to have a better connection with who they're buying from.”
Several large produce companies are turning to technology to offer produce buyers ways to trace fresh fruits and vegetables back to their roots. Chiquita Brands International subsidiary, Fresh Express, along with more than 150 different produce companies, are using tracing programs that allow consumers to track the origins of their products online.
Fresh Express is using a tool called Leaf Locator™ that allows shoppers to enter a tracking code from the side of Fresh Express bagged salads to find out where each lettuce was grown along with the region's weather and soil conditions. According to Chiquita, traffic on the Fresh Express website has grown eightfold since the Leaf Locator system was introduced. The Leaf Locator code is now available on 60 Fresh Express salad products and in more than 24,000 grocery stores nationwide.
YottaMark, Inc., a leading traceability and authentication company, introduced its own fresh food-tracing program for produced called HarvestMark®. Companies including Westlake Produce Company and Driscoll's, a California berry grower, and large retailers including Kroger's, are using the HarvestMark tracking system. For example, Driscoll berries packed in plastic clamshell containers have stickers with the HarvestMark traceability code, and a sequence of numbers and letters that contain links to harvest and packing information.
Shoppers can key in the code on the HarvestMark website, or scan it with a free iPhone application. They'll then receive product quality information including any food safety notices, and even recipes, and the history of the farm where the produce was grown. More than 100 produce brands are using the HarvestMark system.
HarvestMark, and other produce tracking tools are being developed in compliance with the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), the result of increased consumer interest in health, food safety, and sustainability, and more public awareness of food recalls and other food safety issues. The PTI Action Plan was introduced by a steering committee of leading U.S. produce marketing and produce associations in 2008 to enhance the speed and efficiency of future traceability systems.
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