What Does It Mean for Ingredients to Be Traceable?
And why should you care about traceability?
Campfires, homemade s'mores, twinkling fireflies; it's camping season (even if that just means a picnic in your backyard). As you gather up the ingredients for your outdoor feast, though, do you know where the chocolate in your s'mores is coming from? What about the salmon you're cooking on the grill? Do you know how it was caught? When it was caught?
All around the world, some businesses, nonprofits, and consumers have spent the last several years focused on the traceability of ingredients. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt supply chains, knowing how the cow that became your filet mignon was raised, slaughtered, and processed and by whom, or knowing which farm produced the tomatoes in your summer salad feels increasingly more important. But how exactly do companies trace the ingredients that make up the food we buy and how can that traceability help create a better food system?
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization defines traceability as the ability to discern, identify, and follow the movement of a food or substance intended to be or expected to be incorporated into a food, through all stages of production, processing and distribution. For companies, like Patagonia Provisions, which has a line of shelf-stable packaged food items, ingredient traceability is at the heart of why the outdoor gear brand launched a food line. Each of their foods starts with knowing farmers and understanding their growing practices and business.
"The understanding where our ingredients come from is honestly our reason for being—we know there is a better way to grow our food, from the start, and that understanding is what informs everything that we do," says Birgit Cameron, head of Patagonia Provisions. "It is ultimately what feeds our mission statement: We're in business to save our home planet." It means when you buy Patagonia Provisions salmon, you know not only where it comes from but also how it was caught and by whom.
For other companies, like chocolate company Beyond Good, ingredient traceability was an unexpected yet welcome benefit of their business model. "We wanted to manufacture at origin because that changes the game for the local communities producing cocoa," says Beyond Good founder and CEO Tim McCollum. "We had no experience, no chocolate background; we were Peace Corp volunteers, and we didn't realize how the rest of the industry did it, but for us, transparency is unavoidable as we're buying directly from the farmers."
The vast majority of chocolate is produced at factories far away from the farmers that grow cocoa. According to McCollum, because cacao is a smallholder crop grown by farmers that have only a couple of acres, it's not unusual for cacao to go through five or six intermediaries before it even reaches a production facility.
The company is the only U.S. chocolate brand that makes its finished product at origin. This is thanks to its factory in Madagascar, which sources organic cocoa directly from more than 100 farmers in the country. Eliminating the middleman allows the company to pay its cocoa farmers more, which is one more aspect of being able to trace ingredients to origin: understanding how the people producing it all along the supply chain are treated and paid.
"Chocolate, like coffee and a lot of these crops that we, as Americans, have a love affair with, originates in parts of the world with extreme poverty. I don't think people need to travel there to understand it, but I think it's important to know the beginning of this beautiful chocolate is someone picking a crop by hand on the other side of the world," McCollum says. "In general, people want efficiency and they don't need to know every detail, but the fewer people between them and the product they are consuming, there is inherent value in that to most people."
When you understand who produces an ingredient, it is also possible to see and even change how that product is grown in a way that is beneficial for the environment. "What we're doing to nature in the way we conventionally grow our food may be the single most dangerous and destructive thing we're doing to the planet and to our own health," says Cameron. "Overuse of chemicals, GMOs, loading food with antibiotics, and unsafe conditions for workers, which all result in cheap food production, are commonplace. These practices are skewing our food production system, destroying communities and leaving us ill-equipped to responsibly supply the population with food for the future. We think there is a better way, starting with the ingredients. And across the globe, we are seeing more and more consumers demanding healthier food. All of this is why ingredient traceability matters."
Patagonia Provisions is working with its farmers to transition them to regenerative organic agricultural practices (ROC). "ROC is a way in which we can deeply address ingredient traceability at the source–from soil health and land management to animal welfare and farmer/worker fairness," says Cameron.
Not all companies are as transparent as Beyond Good and Patagonia Provisions, and for consumers, knowing exactly how the ingredients that make up our food are produced isn't always easy. Shopping local, at farmers' markets and farm stands, is one way, but those markets aren't available to everyone and don't offer everything we want to buy. When you are at the supermarket, understanding what the labels we see on our food offers some clues and the more you shop the outside aisles of the supermarkets (think dairy, fruits, vegetables, meat and fish), the more likely you'll be able to tell where the food is coming from or at least ask the expert in those aisles questions about it.