Photo by Nguyen Linh on Unsplash

We hear the refrain “consumers want transparency” a lot these days. As we grow more and more conscientious about where our products come from and what went into making them, brands are under increasing pressure to offer up the kind of “insider” information no one would have even thought to demand 20 years ago.

That demand’s perhaps loudest in the food industry. In a 2016 study, 94 percent of respondents said it was important for food-manufacturing brands to be transparent about what’s in their food and how it’s made. And 83 percent of said access to more extensive product information would be “valuable.”

Driving many of the efforts to provide this level of transparency is something called augmented transparency (AT). Though a bit of a nebulous of a term, AT is technology—often a group of technologies working together—that gives us more in-depth information about our food: what’s in it, where it comes from, the resources used to produce it, and so on. The hope of many is that AT will use multiple channels (apps, websites, QR codes, etc.) to deliver expert information to consumers about what they eat. Think of it as a “behind-the-scenes” look at your food.

Timing-wise, there’s enormous need for this. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has a long history of fighting transparency. As a result, consumer trust in these brands is weak. And, from a practical standpoint, there’s limited space on, say, a box of cereal to fit ingredients, allergens, and other nutrition information, never mind information about sourcing and supply chain.

AT and the companies experimenting with it may not solve these problems overnight with a single solution. But a number of folks are making some promising headway:

Chicken of the Sea. Head to the company’s traceability website and you can track the production journey of your tuna by entering the number found on the bottom of each can. The rationale here is to make transparent every step of the manufacturing process, including the legality of the fishing vessels and treatment of the workers. To that end, the traceability website includes information about the species, methods used to catch it, where it was processed and canned, and a glimpse at Chicken of the Sea’s sustainability policies and progress. The company wants to make such transparency available for its entire shelf line at some point in the future.

Co-op Italia. This “supermarket of the future,” done in partnership with Accenture, keeps products on interactive tables and smart shelves. When a shopper touches a product, a system powered by Microsoft Kinect sensors will detect the movement and display product information on a nearby screen: nutritional information, allergens, disposal instructions, and related items. Data for cooking suggestions, top-selling items, and other information is processed and displayed in real time around the store. Co-op Italia is betting on this combination of connected devices, personalization, and real-time knowledge to become the norm for grocery stores in the future.

SmartLabels. Not to be confused with “smart labels,” the SmartLabels initiative is the work of Trading Partner Alliance, a group formed by the GMA. Via the app or website, curious shoppers can scan products and get instant access to information about ingredients, allergens, and claims and certifications. It’s expected that 30,000 products will be available to scan by the end of 2017. The idea is great in theory, though it remains to be seen how widespread the technology will become, and how transparent it will actually be. Skepticism over this product has existed since SmartLabel was announced in 2015, and, as noted above, the GMA doesn’t have the cleanest track record when it comes to transparency.

There are some smaller but no less important initiatives at play. Hershey’s A-to-Z glossary of ingredients lists what all those strange, eight-syllable words in processed foods are and what they do. Catelli Brothers, who make veal and lamb products, uses a 24/7 remote-video-monitoring system called Arrowsight to give consumers a view of all livestock-handling procedures. JW West and Companies also keeps cameras to display its animals and their conditions.

Finally, Future + Food coLab was a partnership between Target and the MIT Media Lab. Here, scanners used lightwaves to determine the properties of a food product and provide more information to consumers. Future + Food coLab shut its doors this past June, when Target stepped away and alternative investment couldn’t be found. Nonetheless, it’s worth a mention. The project may be dead, but the technology and ideas are still very much alive. Here’s hoping they make their way to other companies and AT initiatives in the future.

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