Reporting from San Jose — Inside a Silicon Valley company's windowless vault, massive servers silently monitor millions of heads of lettuce, from the time they are plucked from the dirt to the moment the bagged salad is scanned at the grocery checkout counter.
That trail can be traced in seconds, thanks to tiny high-tech labels, software programs and hand-held hardware gear. Such tools make it easier for farmers to locate possible problems — a leaky fertilizer bin, an unexpected pathogen in the water, unwashed hands on a factory floor — and more quickly halt the spread of contaminated food.
This Dole Food Co. project and similar efforts being launched across the country represent a fundamental shift in the way that food is tracked from field to table. The change is slow but steady as a number of industry leaders and smaller players adopt these tools.
Much of the farming community has yet to follow suit, and federal food-safety legislation is stalled in Congress. But proponents of this digital transformation said it was inevitable given public outrage over the recent scandal over contaminated eggs. They said technology could simplify the nation's highly complicated food-safety system, helping prevent or contain the harm caused by recalled food.
"The driving force in all this is the recalls," said Ashish Chona, chief executive of InSync Software in San Jose, whose technology is used by Dole in Salinas Valley. "A recall can bring a company to its knees. Everyone knows it."
It's also a potential economic bonanza for California, which has been on the leading edge of this convergence between two of the state's largest and most powerful industries: technology and agriculture.
IBM Corp. is in talks with a leading growers association in California to roll out a computerized tracing system for its members. This week Intelleflex Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., is attaching tracking labels to plastic food bins so the Hawaii Department of Agriculture can keep an eye on tomatoes, pineapples and other produce grown and sold on the islands.
YottaMark Inc. in Redwood City is helping more than 2,000 farms in North America track their yams, berries and other produce from the field to the store. Lotpath Inc. in Fresno has been hired by farmers eager to watch over their peaches and nectarines. Infratab Inc., a smart-chip and logistics firm in Oxnard, is working with grape growers in the Golden State and ensuring that more of the fruit arrives at its peak — and less is lost to spoilage.
In general, such trace-back systems work in a way that's similar to how Federal Express tracks its packages. On the farm, animals and crop sections are given a "smart" label with a unique identifying number. The label is then attached to a bin, crate or container used for transport.
Workers then can use a hand-held computer or smart phone to scan the labels and record key information, such as date and time, location, workplace temperature and which truck hauled the food away. The information is usually uploaded to a central online database, where it is stored and can be accessed via the Web.
Each time the food moves or is handled by someone new, the data can be updated and recorded.
"If computers can be used to track individual bottles of drugs throughout the supply chain in the pharmaceutical industry, then why not food?" asked Paul Chang, who heads IBM's traceability initiative. The Armonk, N.Y., company also is working with Thailand's Ministry of Agriculture to track the production of mangos and chickens for export to the U.S.
But some farmers and suppliers aren't sold on the idea. They argue that such technology can be costly and gives only a partial snapshot of what's happening in a barn or field.
There are also cultural barriers to overcome. Many farmers, comfortable with cutting-edge tools in the field and processing factory, are still rooted in the Luddite tradition of using pen and paper in the office.
"The attitude is 'I'm not having problems on my farm, so why spend money fixing something that already works?'" said Mike Dodson, chief executive of traceability software firm Lotpath.
Agriculture, by its very nature, is transitory. An apple can make five stops before a consumer takes a bite. The fruit is picked from a grove, trucked to a sorting center, boxed at a packing company, sent to a distribution warehouse, and finally unloaded and placed on display counters at a grocery store. Each location would have a different method for recording and storing data.
Add to that the sheer volume of food consumed: 6 billion cases of produce travel across the U.S. each year — and that's just fruits and vegetables.