business news in context, analysis with attitude

This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.

Hi, I'm Kevin Coupe and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

I'm just back from California, where I had an opportunity to teach a class in USC's Food Industry Management program - a great time, and terrific program, and it is one of the great pleasures of what I do that universities ask me to participate in such programs.

While I was there, I was interested to read a story that was sent to me by an MNB user, and that went as follows:

"Consumers visiting Carrefour stores in Shanghai are now able to trace the origin of vegetables and fruits on sale by scanning the Quick Response codes of products with their smartphones. "The production place and date of the item, the business license of its supplier and other information regarding the farms can be tracked down, officials said yesterday ... All of its outlets in Shanghai will have the codes by the end of this week, officials said," adding that "the intent is to improve food safety and freshness, and also increase farmers' incomes at the same time."

Wow. That's pretty cool. And evidence, I think, of how important transparency is becoming in global markets.

But what I really found interesting about this was the fact that essentially the same kind of system was in place in Tokyo when I visited some Aeon stores there in 2006.

I remember being fascinated with it. For example, in the produce department, packaged tomatoes had a QR code - it may have been the first QR codes I'd ever seen. Using cell phones - they weren't even smart phones - people could take a picture of the code, and within a minute or so find out where the tomatoes were grown, what was used to fertilize the ground where the tomatoes were grown, and even see a picture of the farmers who grew the tomatoes.

Because of the concerns about mad cow disease, Aeon also had a system that offered a code number for every piece of beef sold there, and the number correlated to the cow from which the beef came. By typing in that code number, one could see the BSE-free certificate, find out where the cows were raised, what they were fed, what bulls they may have been consorting with, and see a picture of the rancher who owned them.

This is 2006. Now, seven years later, it sounds like a similar system is being implemented in Shanghai. And most remarkably, I've never seen a system like it being used in the US ... certainly not at the consumer level.

This speaks to a couple of things. One is Aeon's willingness to be transparent. The other is the general feeling on the part of many in the US that they don't have to be ... despite the fact that in so many ways, the balance of power has shifted to the consumer.

I'm hopeful that Whole Foods' decision to mandate the labeling of GMOs in products it sells is the beginning of greater transparency in the US market, and that it won;t be long that I can get the kind of information I could have gotten more than a half-dozen years ago at some stores in Japan.

One other note. When I asked the folks at Aeon how many of their customers used these information systems, they told me about five percent ... which I found alarming. But they explained to me that this was a good thing ... that this meant that 95 percent of customers trusted them enough to not use the system, and one of the reasons they trusted Aeon was that the systems existed.

Investing in transparency ... investing in accurate Country of Origin Labeling ... investing in systems that give consumers as much information as possible about the foods they buy and eat and feed their families ... these are not investments in technology. These are investments in trust. And in the end, if you are in the food business, trust is one of your most important attributes.

That's what is on my mind this Thursday morning. As always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

KC's View: