Facial Recognition Meets the Food Chain

With promising new technologies, we can trace the origins of our food like never before.

| September 2019

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Photo by Getty Images/LordRunar. Overlay added.

Remember Fred and Carrie in the 2011 Portlandia episode “Ordering the Chicken”? Dana, a server in a Portland restaurant, responds to Carrie’s request for more information about the chicken on the menu by launching into a long paragraph of descriptors for the bird, including “heritage breed,” “woodland raised,” and “fed sheep’s milk and hazelnuts.” Still not satisfied, Carrie and Fred read the official papers provided by Dana describing Colin the chicken’s origin and pedigree. By the end of the episode, the still unsatisfied duo get up from their table and announce they are off to visit the farm where Colin lived so they can verify all the claims made about his life before his demise.

Even though this episode appeared in 2011, the scene Fred and Carrie caused will be familiar to servers and restaurant-goers today. Today we want to unravel the whole journey of our food as it travels from field to fork, and the market is responding. And it’s not just the server that we interrogate. We expect our food labels to provide a full narrative of our food’s journey from farm to plate. Last week I held my smartphone scanner up to a QR code on a box of blackberries to see the smiling faces of the family who produced them. And in 2017, OriginTrail, a startup finalist from Italy in our Food+City Challenge Prize competition, began offering clients the ability to provide consumers with stories for ingredients as they pass through the supply chain.

The food industry is hot on the trail of technology that will help the industry, regulators, and consumers know where our food is at every step of the supply chain. Consumers’ growing appetite for information about food comes from the desire to trust the food system. As the routes our food takes change, the new footprints will need to be hyper transparent, traceable, and verifiable. There’s no greater opportunity to improve trust within our food system than by finding better ways to track and trace our food throughout the pathway from farm to plate.



Why? How has this happened, this awkward moment when the art of dining becomes the art of interrogation? Why are we obsessed with our food’s origin? Why is the quality of our food defined by the names and locations of the people who make it? The desire to know where our food is or has been is now one of our greatest cultural obsessions. As Eve Turow explains in her book, A Taste of Generation Yum, millennials and Gen Zers want to see and hear about who produces their food and who is at the other end of a food-related transaction. With the cultural turn away from presumptive trust of capitalism along with the desire for more personal connections, they want the food system to become visible and understandable.

The whole concept of time and distance surfaces in the way we describe food roots and routes. And when we arrive at a system for knowing the full routing of our food, we may discover a need for compromise between our aspirations and our pragmatism. We may want a route that is fully traceable and knowable, but after we know enough to trust our food, we may move on to other obsessions. Those who remain obsessed will be those in the food industry who monitor food safety and security.

Tracking and tracing food is a challenging proposition, considering all the various methods and inconsistencies of record keeping. But adding in all the friction points where the flow is even momentarily arrested makes the tracking and tracing system even more complex. In some cases, scenarios for delayed food shipments are random. Some disruptions can’t be imagined, so we can’t predict them. The food supply chain is full of paradoxes and perturbations.

Food Tracks

The race toward complete traceability will intensify before we find the sweet spot for food safety and trust. Now, food logistics companies announce another way to apply the latest technology to finding our food wherever it may be in the supply chain. Tracking our food even before it officially enters the supply chain is just one example of how our next bite may be closely monitored. 

Facial recognition is beginning to enter our food system, making the Portlandia duo seem amateurish. Go-Go Chicken of China is using the technology to individually track each of their chickens from henhouse to your house. Each chicken wears a tracking device affixed to one of its feet to enable real time movements to appear on a customer’s cellphone. The Internet of Things that enables other industries to track goods and services provides the platform for this Internet of Chickens that tracks every movement of your drumstick. If you wonder whether your cage-free chicken really enjoyed a daily walkabout before its demise, now there’s a way to find out.

The company is confident about the demand for these high-priced chickens. They know the foodie, millennial, and well-to-do middle-class consumers will pay more to see more of their food. And who knows, maybe consumers will consider watching their food march toward their plates as a form of foodie tourism, a way to “visit” farms and meet the farmers. (By the way, it’s not just chickens; ZhongAn Technology is working on fish face recognition, and cow face recognition became a reality early in 2018. Yes, really.)

Excerpted from Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating by Robyn Metcalfe, Copyright, The MIT Press, 2019.

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