Advances in technology constantly change the fresh produce industry at all levels of the supply chain.

Smart people, dumb idea

Chris Koger
Food for Thought

Take the Produce Traceability Initiative — dozens of companies have products and services touting tracking solutions to meet the 2012 case-level tracking deadline.

I’ll admit that some company announcements focusing on PTI cause my head to swim with their technical nature. That’s OK, because I rely on Packer writers to explain it in easy-to-understand terms.

Rarely, however, do I come across something that makes me feel smarter than the lab coat-wearing eggheads.

Tokyo-based NEC recently announced development of 3-D “face-recognition” technology that allows consumers to take a picture of a single piece of fruit to find out when and where it was grown, and who grew/packed it.

Every fruit and vegetable, according to the company, is unique, similar to a fingerprint. Why not scan millions of pieces of fruit to have a database of these fingerprints? NEC touts the process as a money-saving way to provide full-scale traceability and eliminate point-of-origin fraud and mislabeling … because there are no labels.

How liberating — no bothersome labels, radio frequency identification tags, Global Trade Item Numbers or bar codes.

This is where anyone with a passing knowledge of the life of a fruit or vegetable would snap the NEC researchers’ protective goggles and administer a wedgie.

To be effective to any degree, billions and billions of pieces of fruit would have to be scanned by the shipper, who then is responsible for storing/documenting each image.

Sure, some U.S. shippers, most notably citrus companies, use cameras to help sort the fruit by color and quality. But there’s a huge leap from in-house sorting to full-scale traceability.

What happens if the fruit is slightly damaged in transit? How can the retailer — or anyone in the supply chain — trust a photo, and what responsibility does the shipper have in storing the images?

Worst-case scenario: An outbreak occurs, but consumers have already eaten the “documents” that trace it back to the grower.

How can researchers be so smart to perfect face-recognition technology but be dumb enough to think the industry and consumers would invest in this plan?

We need researchers in labs tinkering with “what if” scenarios, pondering the use of one technology to solve problems other than what it was designed for. There are cases of unintended — but positive — results when a lab experiment goes awry. Silly Putty, for example.

But fruit-recognition software? Sure, it gets the techno-savvy app geek’s heart racing, but it gives consumers an absolutely wrong view of reality — and that’s the opposite of what the industry has been trying to relate in the wake of damaging food safety outbreaks.


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