Recalls push more companies to adopt digital tools that can prevent or contain the harm caused by contaminated food.
By P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from San Jose — Inside a Silicon Valley company’s windowless vault, massive servers silently monitor millions of heads of lettuce, from the time they are plucked from the dirt to the moment the bagged salad is scanned at the grocery checkout counter.
That trail can be traced in seconds, thanks to tiny high-tech labels, software programs and hand-held hardware gear. Such tools make it easier for farmers to locate possible problems — a leaky fertilizer bin, an unexpected pathogen in the water, unwashed hands on a factory floor — and more quickly halt the spread of contaminated food.
This Dole Food Co. project and similar efforts being launched across the country represent a fundamental shift in the way that food is tracked from field to table. The change is slow but steady as a number of industry leaders and smaller players adopt these tools.
Much of the farming community has yet to follow suit, and federal food-safety legislation is stalled in Congress. But proponents of this digital transformation said it was inevitable given public outrage over the recent scandal over contaminated eggs. They said technology could simplify the nation’s highly complicated food-safety system, helping prevent or contain the harm caused by recalled food.
“The driving force in all this is the recalls,” said Ashish Chona, chief executive of InSync Software in San Jose, whose technology is used by Dole in Salinas Valley. “A recall can bring a company to its knees. Everyone knows it.”
It’s also a potential economic bonanza for California, which has been on the leading edge of this convergence between two of the state’s largest and most powerful industries: technology and agriculture.
IBM Corp. is in talks with a leading growers association in California to roll out a computerized tracing system for its members. This week Intelleflex Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., is attaching tracking labels to plastic food bins so the Hawaii Department of Agriculture can keep an eye on tomatoes, pineapples and other produce grown and sold on the islands.