How Safe Is Our Food, Really?

Did you know that each year, one in six Americans gets sick because of contaminated food?
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Each year, one in six Americans gets sick because of contaminated food.

And according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Protection (CDC), outbreaks may be on the rise. During a five-year period from 2005 to 2010, 39 outbreaks made more than 2,300 people ill, but nearly half, or 17, took place during 2009-20120.

But do we really need to worry about our spinach? Be scared of peanuts? Sure, today's far-flung food supply network comes with new risks. But food safety doesn't have to be a tradeoff for bountiful food.

Our food supply network, complex as it is, can be accountable. We could track food from farm to table. We could pinpoint right away where a bad batch of food came from instead of resorting to massive recalls. We could even keep contaminated food from hitting shelves in the first place.

Hard to imagine, partly because for so long skeptics have argued that food tracking systems are too complex, too expensive and too unworkable on a broad scale.

But that's just not true any longer. Technology can make our food safer and it's here now. We can combine easy-to-use common technologies -- such as barcodes, cloud computing, smartphones, and analytics -- at minimal costs. We can also create tracking systems that are affordable and work for everyone from Mom and Pop farms to multinational company food testers.

In fact, the government of Thailand is already rolling out exactly this kind of no-nonsense system. To Americans, Thailand may be a small country halfway around the world, but it's a massive global food supplier. Along with being the world's fourth largest exporter of frozen chicken, Thailand is a leading exporter of seafood, most notably shrimp, and fruits to the U.S.

Farmers in Thailand apply barcodes to mangos or a shipment of chicken, scanning them with barcode readers or smartphones and sending data wirelessly to a data storehouse in the cloud run by Thailand's Ministry of Agriculture. Each time a product changes hands, it's scanned again and more data is collected. Which farm produced the mango. Where it was processed. Even the temperature of the trucks and containers it was shipped in. All of these bits of data can be collected and analyzed.

Knowing where a specific batch of food was picked or processed makes it faster and easier to track down tainted sources, so we consumers don't have to worry all the time. At the same time, the food industry can stem losses from recalls and mistrust. And instead of random tests, food companies and inspectors could crunch data, such as how long a product was en route or what temperatures it was stored at, to pinpoint which batches to test.

Thailand is hardly alone. Denmark tracks its cattle with a food traceability system, while Hong Kong uses one to monitor chickens and China is beginning to trace pork production.

Even the U.S. is starting to get in on the act. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this year is conducting two pilot projects, for processed and fresh foods, to explore ways of tracking food.

What the examples of other countries and the FDA pilot should show us is that there are no longer real obstacles to making food tracking in the U.S. a reality. The technology that can make our food safer is here today. It's not cost prohibitive. It's not rocket science. It's practical and more than that, it's just common sense.

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To learn more about smarter food traceability, click here.

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