Profile: Followthisfood, using tech to make the UK’s food chain more transparent

Bristol-based Agrantec is on a mission to make it easy for consumers to track their food from farm to fork
17th February 2017

Some of you may look back at the horsemeat scandal of 2013 in amusement, and others in horror, but the importance of knowing where our food comes from has become a major topic of discussion and of increasing importance for many. It also happens to be something that is being tackled with some simple tech.

“The project aims to enable consumers and producers to meet in a more honest marketplace”

 

Followthisfood is the latest project by Bristol-based Agrantec that is encouraging the food industry to become more transparent about the food that they’re producing as well as making it easier for consumers to remove the guise of marketing gimmicks and track their dinner from farm to fork.

Eager to find out how it all works and when we can expect this new tech to start to benefit our day-to-day lives, we had a chat with Agrantec’s Managing Director Martin Coates.

Farm to fork

followthisfood-code-bristolUsing a simple barcode sticker system, customers are able to type the code listed on a product (example pictured right) into the Followthisfood website and then read about the whole process it has gone through.

In the case of meat, consumers can find out the breed of the animal, its weight, age and the date and time it was packed – in addition to detailed information on the farm it came from, the abattoir in which is was killed and the butcher that went on to process it.

“This initial idea was a simple farm to fork type solution, applied to the fresh meat supply chain,” Martin tells us.

“The project aims to enable consumers and producers to meet in a more honest marketplace where each party has a better understanding of how food is produced and what that means in economics, environment and nutrition.”

“Despite the efforts of the parts of the industry to say it is all too difficult, the data collection requirement is trivial”

 

“At the front end, operators capture data in very simple ways, using barcode scanners or touchscreens. This means less time doing the ‘paperwork’ and more time making great food.

“Behind this is a no-database store into which transactions are ‘thrown’; matched with a clever indexing system to cross-reference with existing data and piece together the chain.

“The real insight is that despite the efforts of the parts of the industry to say it is all too difficult, the data collection requirement is trivial – just 6 pieces of data and I have 4 of them from the login.”

Trial and error

Following early trials, the company quickly realised that they were treading a fine line between attracting suppliers and simultaneously educating consumers on the supply chain – of course, producers still wanted to market their product positively.

Martin explains: “We decided to add a capability to create content that would both promote the producer and educate the supply chain to the consumer. Followthisfood can link business transactions, i.e. what companies actually do is linked with explanations of why.

“The project aims to enable consumers and producers to meet in a more honest marketplace where each party has a better understanding of how food is produced and what that means in economics, environment and nutrition.”

“Our biggest successes have been making the technology work in a simple food chain”

 

As a result, consumers can also use the Followthisfood site to answer all those burning questions around anything from MSG in food to what ‘free-range’ really means.

So, despite the issues presented by the challenge of how to get both producers and consumers on side, the company is having great success so far. Martin explains: “Our biggest successes have been making the technology work in a simple food chain, and then making it work with complex food production, i.e. soups, pies, ready meals.

“And keeping going despite failures at some food businesses that make strong provenance claims, but cannot back them up all the time. In fact, that is one of the challenges for the food industry as a whole – the temptation to cut corners when under pressure is huge because margins are so small.”

A recipe for success

followthisfood-meat-and-labelNext on the agenda for Followthisfood includes expanding the user base of the farm and food processing management systems that underpin the project and then move Followthisfood into a positive network chain so that users of the system can be trusted to be transparent because they have been visited, set up and are known businesses.

Martin explains: “It’s the positive way to eliminate food fraud and brand fraud.”

Martin tells us he would also like to create more useful content that links consumers to food producers so they can be engaged in the conversation about the impact of changes in methods or the food chain.

He adds: “This latter piece is the hardest piece. How do I persuade a food scientist to dumb down their research so it’s easily digestible (sorry) by the consumer so they can make informed choices? How do food businesses find the time to tell the proper story? And how does Followthisfood compete for attention?”

Despite there being a few challenges ahead for Followthisfood to overcome, there are ways people can get involved in helping to make this food chain tech have the biggest impact. Martin explains: “Encourage suppliers to be more transparent and find good content and publish it so we can pick it up in our trace engine.

“The trace engine is the bit that connects the supply chain when you want to know where something is from and what happened to it or where something ended up.”

Many thanks to Martin for telling us all about Followthisfood. You can find out more about the project and how to find traceable products via the Followthisfood website or you can follow them on Twitter here: @followyourfood.