Columnist, Food

Giant retailer Target and two collaborators have developed a handheld scanner that’s designed to scan and “read” foods instantly. A Target executive says the device promises “better freshness, quality and shelf life” for its products. (Target)

I have seen the future of food transparency, and it is optical. Also, it fits in your smartphone.

Imagine a scanner the size of a grain of rice, built into your phone. You go to the grocery store and point it at something you want to buy. If it’s an apple, the scanner will tell you what variety it is, how much vitamin C it has and how long it has been in cold storage. If it’s a fish, you’ll learn whether it’s really orange roughy or just tilapia being passed off as something more expensive. If it’s a muffin, the device will tell you whether there’s gluten in it.

Although you won’t be able to do it tomorrow, this isn’t some kind of distant Jetsonian vision of the future. I’ve held the rice-size scanner in my hand; it was built for only a few dollars. I’ve seen bigger, more robust versions of the scanner do the things that your smartphone will be able to do, probably during the administration of the president we’re deciding on right now.

As cutting-edge as the applications are, the technology dates to Isaac Newton, who first separated light into its constituent wavelengths, through a prism, back in the 1600s. Fast-forward to when you went to high school, and Mrs. Weiss (or whoever your chemistry teacher was) had you identify a mystery chemical based on the light that reflected off it.

Every substance reflects (and absorbs) light in a different way, and the graph of that reflected light is a kind of optical fingerprint. Except it’s better. Although the whorls and lines in our fingertips don’t say anything inherent about their owner (See that swirl? Doesn’t mean you’re smart.), the peaks and valleys of the optical fingerprint do. That peak there is vitamin C. That other one is sugar. This pattern means gluten.

Identifying a food and its characteristics based on the scan is a twofold job: First, you simply match the optical reading to a library of known objects; second, you read the topography of the graph to zero in on specific characteristics. The two together can tell you an awful lot about what you’re scanning. The Mrs. Weisses of the world are rejoicing.

As am I. Because the implications of this technology are enormous.

I checked in with three companies now working on bringing optical scanning technology to the food supply. Two of them, TellSpec and SCiO, are working on handheld scanners designed for consumer use. The third, Target, is already starting to implement optical scanning in its supply chain.


SCiO says its scanner will tell you the percentage of fat, carbohydrate, protein and water found in cheese, yogurt, milk, meat, fruits and vegetables. (SCiO)

Target, one of the nation’s largest retailers, is collaborating with MIT and business design firm Ideo in a venture called Food + Future coLab, based in Cambridge, Mass., which has the broad mission of helping consumers better understand their food. Greg Shewmaker, a Target entrepreneur in residence (yes, that’s a title!), leads the lab and took me on a tour.

Exhibit A was Brent Overcash, whose job is to investigate interesting technologies that might have a food-related application. The interesting technology he’s focused on is optical scanning, and he showed me how they’re doing it.

Scanning something is the easy part, as easy as taking a fingerprint. What’s tough is figuring out what that something is. The library the researchers need is huge. It’s not like they can take an apple, scan it and just file it under A. They have to scan Fujis and Honeycrisps and Jonagolds, and know what their scans look like when the apples are just-picked and when they’ve been sitting in a warehouse for a year. (Some of the nutrients deteriorate.) They have to know that the side of the apple that didn’t get sun will have less vitamin c than the side that did. They have to know that Grower A’s Fuji will look a little different from Grower B’s Fuji, but they’re both Fujis. And the only way to learn to read the scans, to determine things like sugar and vitamin and calorie content, is to physically test the apple for those things. In a lab. Using expensive equipment and scientists with PhDs.

It’s not an undertaking for the faint of heart, but Target is stepping up. The company is putting industrial-strength scanners in its distribution centers to start building that database. And it’s doing it because it hopes to gain a competitive advantage. According to Casey Carl, Target’s chief strategy and innovation officer, “We’ll deliver better freshness, quality and shelf life,” because produce that’s old or inferior — or not what the label promises — will never make it to the floor.

That’s the motivation for Target, and its effort is beginning with the fresh fruits and vegetables that come in to its centers. But the possibilities are almost literally endless. TellSpec and SCiO, both of which have had hiccups in their crowdfunded efforts to bring these scanners to market, probably will be successful with problems that don't require extensive (and expensive) physical testing: TellSpec is working on detecting gluten; one of the developers working with SCiO is focused on identifying adulterated spices. What else? How about answering such questions as:

■Are there pesticide residues on this strawberry?

■ ■Is the calorie/fat/protein/vitamin information on the label accurate?

■ ■Is there dairy in this salad dressing?

■ ■Has my beer been watered down?

■ ■Is this really a 2004 Caymus Cabernet?

■ ■Is that beef, or horsemeat?

■ ■Is that scallop, or shark?

■ ■Does the organic spinach have more vitamin A than conventional spinach?

■ ■Is there E. coli on this cantaloupe?

■ ■Is this honey, or gold-colored corn syrup?


A researcher uses a handheld scanner to assess a strawberry at the Food + Future coLab in Cambridge, Mass. Stronger versions of the device are being used to scan produce in Target distribution centers to build a database of information. (Target)

Some of those questions — the ones about E. coli and pesticide residues, for example — will be harder to answer than others — the ones about horsemeat and honey. But all will be answerable. (This technology may even be able to detect whether some foods are genetically modified; it depends on whether the modification changes the optical fingerprint.) Today, out of the box, the $249 SCiO scanner will tell you the percentage of fat, carbohydrate, protein and water found in cheese, yogurt, milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, according to SCiO chief executive Dror Sharon. The technology has come far enough to give credence to the idea that it will go much further.

Imagine what happens when it does. When consumers can see what’s in their food, we no longer have to lobby Congress to make suppliers disclose it. When consumers (or consumer protection groups) can test for pesticide residues, we no longer need governments to do it for us. Just as caller ID virtually ended prank calling, optical identification will go a long way toward stopping fraud, adulteration and contamination.

“This is the ultimate lie detector,” says Overcash. “Strip away the branding, labeling and messaging: What is this thing?”

Information means accountability. We won’t have to worry about legislation to make sure fish is labeled properly, because every fish market in America will have a scanner and the FishID app; the problem solves itself. There will no longer be cellulose in the Parmesan. The amount of legislative action and taxpayer money needed to ensure transparency will drop dramatically.

I believe this technology will change our relationship to food, and to the people and companies that grow it for us and sell it to us. It won’t happen tomorrow, and it won’t happen all at once, but the companies involved in bringing optical technology to food will gradually build up the fingerprint library and the algorithms to use it. Before it comes to consumers, it will probably be implemented higher in the food chain, weeding out mislabled, fraudulent and over-the-hill products. Then, as prices come down, it’ll be a more realistic choice for consumers. We’re likely to see some of the more straightforward uses this year, as TellSpec and SCiO ship their devices (both due out toward the end of summer), and some of the more complicated tasks are a couple years out. But this is imminent, and it has the power to change much of what ails our food supply.

This story has been updated.