Traceability: Tracking and Privacy in the Food System

By Popper, Deborah E. | The Geographical Review, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Traceability: Tracking and Privacy in the Food System


Popper, Deborah E., The Geographical Review


This article explores the potential impacts of the global food system's new and expanding national and international governmental traceability requirements on individuals' control of information about their locations and movements. Food traceability is intended to create a standardized locational information system that encompasses all food at all stages of production, from farm to fork. As a public policy, traceability began with little public discussion, but the recent steady publicity of lapses in food safety has heightened interest in traceability. As with the other tracking technologies discussed in this issue of the Geographical Review, one hears mainly of food traceability's benefits to individuals, while its potentials, good and bad, for human tracking are ignored. Its proponents call it a "bureaucratic tool for food safety." Startlingly, however, it is supposed to provide full surveillance of the global food system. One food analyst described the new legal requirements of which traceability is a part as "hav[ing] more impact on the food industry than all other regulations combined" (Thompson 2003, 47).

Treating traceability as a way of tracking food, not people, is in a sense deceptive, because food does not move of its own accord; humans are integral to moving it. Thus traceability often captures people's whereabouts at the same time that it records those of food. This article focuses on that parallel, sometimes incidental, database to understand how it will affect owners, workers, and consumers. The article suggests that workers are most likely to find their privacy compromised; owners' needs and risks will receive the greatest attention; and consumers, the system's presumed beneficiaries, will remain at its margins.

Because a worldwide public traceability system is still forming, this article is often conjectural, but the overall system's momentum, ambition, and range are such that they deserve attention now. Even in their early stages, traceability systems cover food businesses large and small, farms of all types, processors, distributors, transporters, warehouses, and retailers in countries around the globe. Understanding traceability's impacts requires shifting perspective in order to encompass the vast array of interests, particularly because how each interest is incorporated into the system will determine how, who, and what the human locational database embraces.

The geography of traceability has two very different scales--the regional and the personal. Traceability depends on a large and typically ever-expanding extension of an audit culture in which oversight occurs through documentation of designated metrics rather than through personal trust (Strathern 2000). Traceability offers the promise that the individual can know the full story--the places, people, processes, and practices--of items raised and routed all over the world to end up in one's own mouth. Traceability simultaneously erases and expands distance; that is, traceability unsettles people as it makes them newly aware of geography. In some it fosters mindfulness of the travels of their food; others try not to contemplate it at all.

On the regional scale, expanded national and international food regulations often historically coincide with increased cross-border trade in food, and traceability as an innovation clearly results from the globalization of food. Traceability regulations appear to be intended to reassure domestic food consumers and suppliers while increasing national and, especially, international trade. Pressures for traceability have emerged, particularly from the European Union and the United States, two regions with substantial consumer movements, local suppliers, and foreign trade. Large E.U. and U.S. firms seem most likely to benefit. In part, traceability requirements tighten the links between the developed-country importers and the particular developing-country exporters who can adapt easily to the new regulatory framework. …

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