Smartphone to brag about food safety?

My colleagues have wonderful toys.

I can’t complain, I prefer the 17-inch MacBook Pro because I write and edit and read a lot, but Chapman and Amy and Gonzo, they’re all about their iPads and iPhones and gizmos. They figure out how it works and then can explain it in Doug-speak if I need something.

So I’m not sure how Food Quality magazine ended up asking me about the new NEC smartphone app for tracking produce pedigrees, but I suggested, why not make an app to promote food safety.

“If you’ve invested a lot in food safety, why not brag about it?”

According to the Food Quality article, the technology works much like fingerprinting, because the visible characteristics of most produce are as uniquely identifiable as a person’s prints. Growers can snap a photo of their fruits and vegetables as they’re harvested and give them a unique identifier. When NEC tested the system on 1,800 Andes melons, it claims, the error rate was just one in one million.

According to a news release from NEC, the technology will eliminate the need for RFID (radio frequency identification) and barcodes and significantly reduce costs for produce businesses when it is released commercially within two to three years.

“I think it would be an ideal way to show people your organization’s food safety commitment before an outbreak happens,” Dr. Powell said. “People buy organic, local, natural, sustainable because they think it’s safer, but it’s not necessarily so.”

If FedEx can track letters, can growers track lettuce?

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. 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.

The Los Angeles Times reports this Dole Food Co. project and similar efforts 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 egg contamination scandal. They said technology could simplify the nation’s complex food-safety system, helping prevent or contain the harm caused by recalled food.

Trace-back systems are similar to how FedEx tracks its packages. On the farm, animals and crop sections are given a "smart" label with a unique identifying number. The label is attached to a bin, crate or container used for transport.

Workers then use a hand-held computer or smart phone to scan the labels and record key information, such as date, time, location, workplace temperature and which truck hauled the food. The information is usually uploaded to a database, where it is stored and can be accessed via the Web.

Each time the food moves or is handled by someone new, the data can be updated.