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Traceability rule represents big adjustment for food industry

A rash of food recalls, from peanuts to eggs, led to several deaths and new calls for a comprehensive food-safety bill, but it has become stalled in Congress. The recalls have also led many food growers and processors to hire private inspectors to protect themselves from lawsuits, but experts say the inspections are rife with flaws and often do not make products safer.

"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."

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