A provision of the federal food safety law passed last year requires that all players in the country's food supply chain be able to quickly trace from whom they received a food product and to whom they sent it. They'll have to maintain that information in digital form, creating deep wells of information that, in some cases, consumers could tap into through their computers or cellphones.
The "one step forward, one step back" traceability requirement - for processed food and produce - is designed to make it easier for the Food and Drug Administration to identify the source of an outbreak of foodborne illness, trace its path and swiftly remove it from the food supply.
The new requirement represents a major adjustment for some parts of the nation's food system, as the government imposes standards and electronic record-keeping on an industry where small players still rely on handshakes and paper invoices.
The FDA has had trouble quickly pinpointing the source of national outbreaks of food-borne illness, a task complicated by a lengthy food supply chain where tomatoes might change hands five times from farm to store.
Many in the food business already are using traceability technology, mostly relying on bar codes that can be affixed after harvesting to a piece of fruit or a crate.
But the new law has triggered a small gold rush for technology companies angling for a piece of an emerging market, which covers food other than meat, poultry and egg products. They are competing to develop the tracking technology and manage the data.
Some are experimenting with radio frequency identification and other sophisticated methods, including etching identification codes on produce with lasers or micro-percussion markers that make tiny indents.
"They each believe they have the holy grail product tracking solutions sitting in their laptop," said David Acheson, former assistant commissioner for food protection at the FDA. "Somebody is probably going to make a bundle of money out of this."
Under the new law, the FDA must launch pilot projects by September, then report results to Congress and issue more specific rules by 2013. Exactly what systems will ultimately look like, how they will work and how much they will cost is unclear.
Paul Chang, who leads the traceability initiative at IBM, said the company is basically taking the tracking system it uses for the pharmaceutical industry and adopting it to the food business.
He said traceability helps not only with safety but also allows companies to hold their partners along the chain accountable for moving food quickly and avoiding spoilage.
"It's about allowing people to make more intelligent decisions by providing accurate, instrumented data," he said.
Segments of the food industry have been required since 2005 to be able to trace "one step forward, one step back," but not farms or restaurants.
But according to a 2009 investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services's inspector general, most food facilities surveyed did not meet those requirements and 25 percent didn't even know about the law.
The need for better traceability became clear after a national outbreak of salmonella illness in spring 2008 that sickened more than 1,300 people across the country.
Initially, investigators at the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified tomatoes as the culprit, and warned the public against consuming them. But more than a month later, FDA investigators correctly identified the source of the outbreak as peppers from Mexico. The delay was partly because of the chaotic record-keeping of the growers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers, Acheson said.
In the meantime, the cost to tomato growers in Florida alone was estimated at about $100 million.
While the traceability system will improve the tools available to the FDA, Acheson cautioned that tracking an outbreak will still take time.
"It still involves the FDA going to the local Safeway, finding out who they received it from and they've got to go to those three suppliers and do the same thing," he said. "They'll be more efficient, but it won't achieve the desired speed to shut it down."
In some cases, companies are going beyond the federal requirement and making a portion of the traceability information available to consumers, who are increasingly interested in the way food is produced.
HarvestMark, based in California, has developed a two-dimensional bar code sticker that can be placed on individual fruits and vegetables or packaging.
Shoppers can scan the sticker with a smartphone or go to the HarvestMark website and enter the number from the sticker to learn the path the food has taken and other information the farmer chooses to share, such as the harvest date.
"There's been a very rapid sea change in consumer behavior," said Elliott Grant, the chief marketing officer for HarvestMark. "With very high-profile food recalls, cellphones and iPhones, people have been trained that they can access information very quickly. They want to know, 'Where does this come from and is it safe? How far has it traveled? What are the growing practices?' "
HarvestMark is being used by more than 200 companies, including the national chain Kroger's, which is applying it to all of its private label fruits and vegetables in its more than 2,400 stores.
Not only does the technology provide information about the food, but it also allows the consumer to send a comment to the farmer, Grant said. "You can click a button and tell the farmer 'These are the greatest strawberries I've ever had' or whatever. . . . It's about using technology to put people back in touch with the people who grow their food."
That's new for Phillip Bauman, a 42-year-old watermelon farmer in Washington state. Bauman bought the HarvestMark system for his Pasco farm about three years ago because Costco required a tracking system.
But Bauman, who is a member of the Old German Baptist Brethren, does not own a television, use e-mail or have Internet service. HarvestMark provides him with a laptop computer and pre-printed bar code stickers for his melons. And during harvesting, he takes the laptop to a bank or some other place with Internet service to upload the data to HarvestMark.
One day, he was surprised to get a letter from an unhappy customer who had tracked down his address from the HarvestMark sticker. Using the code, Bauman traced the melon and discovered it had been picked in August but purchased by the customer in October.
"We called him back and said we're really sorry ," Bauman said. "Then I complained to the chain and said my name is on this product that's out there for two months. This system gives the end user - the customer - the option to be more aware of their products and where it comes from. And I think there will be a higher level of accountability, on our end of it, too."