Technology

Supermarkets Are Going High Tech For Fresher Food

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When you take a bag of spinach home from the grocery store, how do you know how long it'll stay fresh? Despite the date on the bag, that spinach could have sweated it out in a hot truck, frozen during uneven refrigeration, or come into contact with illness-causing bacteria, all of which change how long it's truly safe to eat. Grocery stores don't really know the backstories of all their food. But with new technology, it's getting easier to check in on what food has been doing — from the field all the way to your fork.

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I'll Be Watching You

In 2006, when an E. coli outbreak in the U.S. led to the deaths of three people and sickened hundreds more, it took the FDA three months to figure out that the bacteria had come from a bag of Earthbound Farm spinach. It took the CDC roughly the same amount of time to get to the bottom of the 2016 outbreak of Salmonella poisoning that sickened 30 people in nine states (it ended up being alfalfa sprouts). And a year earlier, a norovirus outbreak at Chipotle caused more than 300 people to get sick, but the CDC never found the source of the virus. That's obviously bad news for public health, but it's also bad for a company's bottom line. Chipotle's sales dropped by a quarter. Earthbound Farm's CEO had to step down. FoodSafety magazine reports that in 2016, there were 764 food recalls, which cost food companies an average of $10 million a pop.

So it's no wonder that companies are investing large amounts of money into technology that can track ingredients from the source. In the last few years, many startups have surfaced to do the job: systems like HarvestMark, Frequentz, FoodLogiQ, and Zest Fresh use high-tech sensors on food crates, in trucks, and on packages that broadcast their status to the cloud where suppliers and retailers can check in on it from anywhere. It appears to help: most retailers expect produce to arrive with at least 10 days left on its shelf life, but according to Zest Fresh, only 30 percent of products actually arrive by then. The CEO claims that their system raised that rate to more than 90 percent.

Workin' On The Chain Gang

But the number of different systems available may just be making an existing problem higher tech. Right now, farmers, distributors, and retailers all use different methods to track their products, and that's just the issue. When you need to trace a food-poisoning outbreak back to the source, you need to do it quickly. With so many tracking systems in the game, that's tough, regardless of how well they work individually.

Enter the blockchain. The technology is most famous for its use with cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, but it can technically be used for anything that involves two or more parties. As we've written before, the blockchain is an open, distributed network of individual computers that each hold bundles of records known as "blocks," which are visible to everyone on the network but kept safe with cryptography. It's incredibly secure and makes it very difficult to fake records, since every time something needs to change, many different computers run a series of algorithms to "vote" on the authenticity of the change.

In August 2017, IBM announced a partnership with food companies ranging from Walmart and Kroger to Nestlé, Dole, and Tyson Foods to apply blockchain technology to their food supply chains. Bringing giant companies on board is a big step toward unifying the system everyone uses to track food. According to Fortune magazine, while the source of foodborne illnesses usually take weeks to investigate, "a blockchain-based system has the ability to reduce that time to seconds." That would leave all of our meals a lot safer.

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