The Companies Trying To Track Everything We Eat
Featured in Fast Company
Date: September 8, 2019
For a startup founder, Charlie Sweat carries a particularly heavy burden. In 2006, he was CEO of Earthbound Farm, the California-based farm and factory that produces the majority of the country’s packaged organic salads, when an E. coli outbreak struck the company’s spinach. Three people died, and 200 more were sickened. The source, investigators later surmised, was likely at the source of the spinach: an Angus cattle ranch that had leased land to a spinach grower.
The experience left Sweat unnerved, but it gave him an idea, too. Preventing outbreaks was a matter of knowing where the tainted food came from. But for legacy food companies, supply chain transparency is a daunting task, complicated by a vast number of suppliers, plants, distributors, and products. Different producers use different tagging systems and different sensors to track different things. Piecing together the details of what comes from where and goes where from seed to table had never really been done successfully before. If it could be, the implications for both public health, corporate transparency, and anti-counterfeiting efforts would be huge: Between food and pharmaceuticals, the market for tracking technologies is expected to grow to an expected revenue of $14.1 billion by 2020, according to a report by Allied Market Research in 2014.
That year, Sweat stepped down from Earthbound, capping a 16-year stint at the company, but he took his idea with him. A few months later, with money from the owners of Earthbound, friends and family and investors, he founded Frequentz, a Palo Alto-based startup that touts a comprehensive “track-and-trace” system for food safety—like FedEx tracking, but for each piece of the food supply chain, from seed to table.
Sweat says that by uploading and integrating any kind of data collected from any kind of tag or sensor, the system can discover the source of a food-borne pathogen, be it a contaminated farm or a broken refrigeration unit. The data could not only help companies identify inefficiencies on their supply chain, but also meet a rising crop of food safety regulations, and help satisfy our growing hunger for more transparency about the foods we eat. Named for the frequency of updates required for a transparent food supply chain, Frequentz aims to slash the number of food-borne illness outbreaks—and make a killing among efficiency- and transparency-conscious food companies.
“Since it is possible now to know everything about your product, the stakes are much higher if you haven’t done everything you can to validate what you sell,” says Sweat.
The food safety problem alone is immense and costly. Last year, Food Safety magazine counted 622 food safety recalls globally due to contamination, with each recall estimated to mean losses on average of $10 million. Food-borne pathogens affect as many as 48 million Americans a year, and according to research by Robert Scharff, an associate professor at Ohio State University, the annual cost of medical treatment, lost productivity, and illness-related mortality is $55.5 billion.
There’s also the threat of illegal practices like unregulated fishing or adulteration, in which suppliers might add something to food to lower their costs. Said to be most prevalent in liquids such as olive oil and in powders such as spices, this form of fraud is estimated to cost the industry $10 billion to $15 billion a year. In one example last year, ground cumin had been covertly mixed with peanut protein, prompting about 20 recalls and leading the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue a consumer warning.
The Frequentz software, custom-designed for each client, depends in part on a growing transportation “internet of things,” including sensors on food crates, in trucks, and on packages. It’s built to accept mobile data from sensors measuring the condition of produce, such as freshness and temperature, as well as scanners picking up packing label data and geographic coordinates. Unlike its handful of competitors, including HarvestMark and FoodLogiQ, Sweat says Frequentz has been designed to combine any data collected from any sensor.
Data from even the smallest farms and fishing vessels can be uploaded on the fly. Eventually, says Sweat, consumers at supermarkets will be able to access that data on their smartphones, including whether a product is fair trade, was harvested or made by workers earning living wages, or contains GMOs or gluten.