When it comes to the safety and sustainability of your food, how much do you really want to know?
Would it help, for instance, to know that Dean MacDonald caught the frozen sockeye salmon you're planning to eat for dinner with a gill net in Barkley Sound? Or that he's been fishing for 21 years, that his home port is Maple Ridge, B.C., and that he landed with your salmon in Bamfield on July 30? Or maybe you're curious to know that his vessel is named Old Style, number 26622?
Details such as these are now available to customers through a pioneering seafood tracing system launched by Canadian retailer Sobeys last week. And as consumers demand more transparency in the food system, other grocery retailers, suppliers and producers are expected to provide them with greater access to food traceability, an industry buzzword to describe the ability to track food through the supply chain back to its origin.
Access to traceability now allows shoppers in various countries to track all kinds of products, from pork to milk to coffee, fruits and vegetables. California-based HarvestMark, for instance, lets shoppers look up information on various coded grocery items, Brazilian food co-op Aurora allows customers to access information on the origin, processing and packaging of a milk product, and German meat co-operative Westfleisch reportedly offers a "Trace 'n Face" system that lets shoppers see a photograph of the pork producer by scanning the label with their cellphones.
In the hands of industry players and government inspectors, traceability promises to increase food safety and accountability, improve efficiency and help cut costs. But it remains to be seen how consumers will actually use the information – if, in fact, they bother to seek it out.
Sobeys's new seafood tracing system, launched in partnership with the Vancouver-based non-profit conservation organization Ecotrust Canada, is meant to assure shoppers that certain products are sustainably caught. And according to Sobeys, it helps them to make informed decisions about their seafood purchases.
Customers can enter a code into a website called Thisfish (thisfish.info) or they can scan a quick-response code on the package using their smart phones. They can then access an abundance of information, such as photos of the boat and crew that caught the product, a map of where it was caught and where it landed, details about the fishing method, and information about the company that processed it. Consumers are even able to send notes directly to the fishermen.
"It's a whole new level of transparency for the consumer," says David Smith, vice president of sustainability at Sobeys.
The scope of the initiative is still limited. Only a few fresh fish and four premiumfrozen seafood products under its "Sensations by Compliments" label – wild sockeye salmon, wild Pacific halibut, wild albacore tuna and wild black cod, whichare certified by the eco-labelling group Marine Stewardship Council – are currently traceable. So, for now, the system appears more effective as a way to boost consumer confidence, than as a tool to allow shoppers to make meaningful comparisons between products.
Sobeys will continue to sell "red-listed" species, species that the environmental groups like Greenpeace believe have a high likelihood of coming from unsustainable fisheries. "If we disengaged and stopped selling the species that are 'red,' the management practices that are making them red will in all likelihood continue and they will sell their product to other markets that are less discerning," Mr. Smith says. "We think it's important that we can drive improvements by engaging, rather than disengaging."
However, the traceability of this small selection of seafood is only the beginning, he says. "It's clearly a sign of things to come."
Tracing technology has been around for years, but until recently, the chips and tags needed to track products throughout the supply chain on a large scale were prohibitively expensive, says futurist Jack Uldrich, a Minneapolis-based author and expert on emerging technologies. As the technology becomes smaller, faster and cheaper, more farmers, producers and processors can now justify adopting it. Moreover, shoppers are becoming increasingly savvy about how to search for information using their cell phones, paving the way for traceability to be introduced in stores.
"We're now at the point [where]… you could use your cell phone to scan the produce in your local grocery store and say, 'I want to know that was farmed within 75 miles, and if it's truly organic,' " Mr. Uldrich says.
The question is how many consumers will actually do this.
"There will be a small subset [of the market]that is very curious and very vigilant," Mr. Uldrich says, but "the average consumer, realistically, they're interested in price."
Mr. Uldrich predicts traceability technology will help weed out shady operators. But, he says, the biggest impact on improving industry practices will likely be made by "the data crunchers at the big food chains," those interested in tracking details like transport distances, harvest dates and production efficiency to reduce business costs and increase accountability.This will have the added effect of improving food safety and reducing the impact on the environment. "Whether the consumer uses this or not is immaterial," he says.
Companies are still figuring out whatkind of tracing information to offer to consumers. Giving shoppers the wrong kind of data can backfire on businesses, says Helge Kittelsen, chief executive officer of TraceTracker Canada, a traceability systems firm that focuses on the coding needs of companies within the supply chain.
Retailers, for example, may use tracing technology to ensure that the mercury content of a certain fish species is within food safety limits. But if that information is offered to uneducated consumers, "people say, 'Oh, it contains mercury. I'm not going to touch that one,' " Mr. Kittelsen says.
At Hooked seafood store in Toronto, owner Dan Donovan does the legwork to ensure the products he sells are responsibly caught, so his customers don't have to. Making sense of something as complex as determining which fish are sustainable isn't easy, he says.
"It's very difficult for us to do it. I'm going to say it's impossible for consumers to do it."
While he says offering traceability to consumers is a positive move, most consumersdemand simple solutions for making sustainable choices. They don't necessarily want more information to process.
"People want 'red,' 'yellow,' 'green,' and it's tough," he says. "People are looking for very, very simple answers."