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What's on your plate? Canada lags in tracing food for safety and profit

Have you ever wondered about the story behind your steak? What about the precise GPS co-ordinates of the orchard your apple came from, or how long ago the "fresh" seafood at your grocer was actually plucked from the sea?

Look closely at their labels. Some of your food is trying to tell you its tale, in code ( your smart phone can decipher it).

Savvy food companies, driven by the spate of high-profile recalls and an increasingly competitive market, have begun publicly flaunting their farm-to-fork "traceability". Translated from industry jargon, that means their ability to trace and to catalogue, step-by-complicated step, the journey food takes from the moment it leaves the farm (or sea) until it arrives on a plate.

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Neither the United States nor Canada has laws forcing food companies to maintain such systems, although they are compulsory in parts of Europe and Japan, where leading retailers are using traceability to cash in. In North America, exposing that information chain to consumers - and using it to court the most discerning - is a brand new marketing strategy. But U.S. companies are far outpacing their sluggish Canadian counterparts in experimenting with it.

While "traceable" produce is still a rare find in Canadian grocery stores, retailers across the U.S., led by the grocery chain Kroger, are trying to gain a competitive advantage by using high-tech stickers that help them go beyond simplistic claims of being local and sustainable. Instead, consumers who buy the products can download specific harvest and slaughter dates, GPS field and fishing locations -- even farmer biographies.

There is no question this appeals to niche segments.

"We want to know where our food comes from and how it's grown. This is not going away," celebrity chef Michael Smith told a recent gathering of food manufacturers in Toronto. Consumers "want transparency and they're willing to pay more for it," he said.

But will the masses buy it? This is a key question for both the agri-food industry, and the increasing number of traceability experts who orbit it.

For years, traceability has been tied almost exclusively to food safety.

The concept picked up momentum when fears over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad-cow disease) began to spread through the United Kingdom, Japan and Canada. Voluntarily, the beef industry implemented animal tagging to enable quick trace-backs of problem animals.

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But the increasing onslaught of food safety scares - beef, spinach, tomatoes, peanuts, eggs - has elevated traceability to a well-known industry buzzword and, in some countries, law.

The European Union passed legislation in 2002 that that compels various food sectors to implement traceability. At minimum, that usually means being able to trace one step back (to where a product came from) and one step forward (to where it went).

Norway is implementing an ambitious nationwide system of full-chain electronic traceability - the goal is to establish digital trails of all food products from farm to fork by year's end.

Rarely have these initiatives included allowing consumers access to traceability information. Most systems are set up exclusively for internal use and business-to-business exchanges of harvest dates, temperature fluctuations and results of various testing that remain invisible to the end consumer.

"Those pieces of information are useful for an educated quality control manager. If you try to push those details onto an uneducated consumer, you're exposing yourself to misguided decisions," said Helge Kittelsen, chief executive officer of TraceTracker Canada, a traceability systems firm that originated in Norway.

Japan, which is the world's largest food importer, has taken the opposite view. To get supermarket shelf space in that country, beef must be traceable from farm to retail outlets; computers are set up for consumers to input packaging codes and print out production records, a government certificate of BSE testing, even pictures of farmers. Similar information is available in some supermarkets for fruits and vegetables (data on fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides are common).

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Roxanne Clemens, an Iowa State University academic who studied meat traceability in Japan, says the BSE situation in that country magnified consumers' belief that governments weren't protecting the integrity of the food supply, in contrast to the "good confidence" that U.S. consumers have.

Canadians have a similar reputation. "We have enormous trust in the system. We predominantly think our food is safe. People don't go into grocery stores and think about it," said David Sparling, professor of agri-food innovation and regulation with the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

While food safety sells in Japan, there is skepticism over whether the concept will make it in North American markets.

"For food safety, you will never be able to get a premium because consumers expect it," said Andreas Boeker, an agriculture economist who specializes in traceability and consumer behavior at the University of Guelph. "People will not pay for traceability in itself," he said. "You have to tell a story with it."

The task of convincing the North American food industry to invest in traceability has been a slog.

Neither the U.S. nor Canada has laws requiring traceability, although pending food safety legislation in the U.S. has a trace component and Canada's food safety chief is mulling the implementation of a basic traceability system for foreign food.

Still, Canadian governments have invested heavily in supporting the crawl of industry-led initiatives, most of which focus on establishing traceability between farm and retailer, but not as far as the consumer.

"It hasn't really taken off yet to the degree we had hoped," said TraceTracker's Mr. Kittelsen said of his company. "We were at least half a decade too early."

There is tacit agreement within the food industry that traceability has some measure of value, particularly with supply chain efficiencies. But convincing everyone that it will pay off to invest now in electronic trace systems that are universally compatible and accessible to consumers is an endeavor akin to convincing a room full of toddlers to swallow cough medicine. Many just aren't having it.

Others, though, are swallowing in great gulps.

Elliot Grant founded the California-based startup HarvestMark in 2005 "with the vision that if we added unique identity to products, it would allow consumers to find out more about them."

Then California's booming spinach fields yielded an international E.Coli crisis.

"That brought our business into focus," Mr. Grant said. Since then, his company has locked its focus on food, signed up close to 200 brands and stamped more than 2 billion products with custom HarvestMark stickers that give consumers access to as much of a product's digital trail the manufacturer chooses.

"Now you can walk into a grocery store and pick out strawberries, watermelon or a bag of salad," Mr. Grant said. "With a few key strokes on your computer you can see where it was grown, find out more about the grower, find out the food safety status or if there has been a recall."

Most of HarvestMark's business to date has been in the U.S. although the company does have some Canadian customers (check produce labels in grocery stores and at Costco for the green HarvestMark logo) with plans to grow business here. But cashing in with food companies has not been easy.

HarvestMark's own research has not shown definitively that North American consumers will pay more for traceable products but it has uncovered a strong preference for them. Mr. Grant believes that suggests an untapped opportunity to build up brands in commodity sectors such as produce.

Ellen Goddard, an academic researching consumer demand in the department of rural economy at the University of Alberta, said Canadian consumers "would pay probably about 50 per cent more for product that is traceable and animal tested and identified by country of origin."

Focus groups conducted by OnTrace, a non-profit, non-government organization created to support traceability initiatives in Ontario's agri-food industry, have also indicated that using traceability systems creatively could create competitive advantage. "If the consumer is interested in learning something abut your product, is it not in your best interest to tell them as much as you can about it? It could mean they'll buy more," said Brian Sterling, OnTrace's CEO.

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About the Author
Global food reporter

Jessica Leeder is the Globe’s Atlantic Reporter, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In previous roles, Jessica has reported for the Globe from Afghanistan and post-quake Haiti, assignments for which she won an Emmy and a National Newspaper Award, respectively. She has also written about the politics of global food, entrepreneurialism and small business, and automotive news. More

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