A sticker next to the label on my package of raspberries reads, “See where and when I was grown. Enter the code at harvestmark.com.” An arrow on the sticker points at a sixteen-digit alphanumeric code on the label. I’ve learned to ignore stickers on food—so much visual noise accompanying phrases like “New look! Same great taste!” and “10% more. Free!” Normally I would have lumped this particular code in with the many bar codes, QR codes, and other machine readable gibberish that litter products today. But as a researcher focusing on agriculture and technology I took the bait, visited the website and entered the code.
The results were underwhelming. I noted that the raspberries’ “safety status” read “no issues reported.” Then I felt naive for assuming that the food I bought was determined to be free of “issues” before it was put on the shelf. Was food safety now the responsibility of the consumer? What happened to the USDA, the FDA, and the A&P?
I realized I’d seen the same type of code before, remembering a package of mushrooms I’d bought a few days earlier. I entered that code into HarvestMark too. Again, “No issues reported,” but this time I was given some additional information—their country of origin, state of origin, and packing location. The code from a package of spinach let me know that it had been grown in either Imperaial (sic) County, California or in Yuma or Maricopa counties, Arizona.
How was I supposed to interpret that information? What is my experience as a customer supposed to be? The industrial food supply has long relied on cultivating consumer assumptions of safe, “fresh” food. Revealing even a part of the circumstances of food production can be a contradiction. First, in informing me that “no issues [have been] reported,” HarvestMark is making me aware of the possibility of issues. It’s a declaration prompting questions which wouldn’t have been asked otherwise—like someone selling me a car and telling me that no other owners have had the brakes fail yet. Second, in letting me know where and when my food was grown, HarvestMark is inverting the longstanding relationship between food producers their presentation of the idea “freshness,” a presentation which has often relied on obscuring the details in order to present an ideal. Products may be “farm fresh,” after a refrigerated journey from a site thousands of miles away.
I spent a month or so researching and testing similar systems, including websites and smartphone apps such as FreshQC, Find The Farmer, and Trace Produce. FreshQC turned out to be a market research dupe. After I entered an alphanumeric code, the website rewarded me with a series of unsolicited multiple choice questions about the quality of my produce, but no information about its quality or origin. Find the Farmer presented more information than other systems, but was limited to producers of grain used in a particular brand of flour.
Data about “food objects” is recorded and analyzed within meat, dairy and produce supply chains to assist with product recalls. This can make it easier, for example, to trace E. coli infested meat back to its point of contamination. As I dug deeper, it became clear that consumer-facing food traceability services were just an attempt to repackage that data and present it in a way that contradicted about a hundred years of food marketing practices.
Most mass-produced fresh food items progress through a variety of steps between farm and table. An apple may grow at a particular tree at a particular location before being picked, processed and packed. Then it may be stored and shipped from and to different locations before being sold by a retailer. Some of these steps can significantly impair a food’s quality. Traceability—the name given to the process HarvestMark and similar services offer— attempts to make all of the steps between farm and table searchable, to aid in identifying and addressing problems after they happen.