The closest most of us get to the farmers that grow our food is when we’re on our way to somewhere other than their farms – as we cruise down highways and byways adjacent to their acreage. But there’s a movement afoot that would make Farmer John less of a stranger. And by making the supply chain that serves up our meals more transparent, we might just end up with safer food. That’s the hope, anyway.
Pistachios are just the latest food in a long string of safety recalls in the last few years, indicating that our massive food-processing industrial complex has some major gaps in safety. What if wheat – the building block of so many of the foods we eat – became tainted? It could sicken or kill millions of consumers. In an effort to prevent such a lapse in safety, Stone-Buhr flour has launched Find the Farmer, a website that allows consumers to (virtually) meet the farmer responsible for the bag of flour of a special “Washington White” product they’ve taken home, by logging onto findthefarmer.com and keying in the lot code printed on the bag.
Stone-Buhr sells its products in California and throughout the Northwest. It was owned by consumer packaged goods giant Unilver from 1981 until 2002 when Josh Dorf, a 39-year-old that the New York Times calls a “disaffected dot.com entrepreneur” (his LinkedIn listing notes that Dorf was director of integration at Wine.com) bought the company. Dorf’s goal: “to get back to basics and build a more traditional company.”
All of the flour that’s traceable through the Find the Farmer site is grown by members of Shepherd’s Grain, a collective of wheat farmers committed to sustainable practices and in compliance with the Food Alliance.
What Dorf is doing isn’t new – bringing supply chain traceability tools to consumers is emerging as a great means of garnering trust and patronage among consumers who are increasingly interested in knowing where their products came from and how they were made. Icebreaker and Patagonia are two examples of clothing companies making their supply chains increasingly transparent.
But while ensuring that your long underwear is sewn in a well-ventilated Chinese factory is going to make you feel like a conscious consumer, knowing where your food came from might help you avoid getting sick. In fact, food traceability might go from being a good marketing tactic to a regulation, if one of two federal bills (the F.D.A. Globalization Act of 2009 or the Food Safety Modernization Act) passes. The legislation proposes tighter controls on food production and would require that food items be traceable back to their original sources. Ironically, some small food producers, including organic farmers, are worried that such regulation would force them out of business because it would be too expensive for them to follow.
What do you think? Should food traceability be law or a good practice?