Saturday, October 30, 2010

Big Solar's Rube Goldberg

The Tortoise And The Solar Plant: A Mojave Story

by Sarah McBride, National Public Radio

- October 30, 2010


Mercy Vaughn crouches over a young tortoise peeking out from its burrow near a creosote bush in California's Mojave Desert.

The area is home to rare species, including the threatened desert tortoise. But a giant solar plant is under construction in the vast wilderness area.

To help save the animal, the company building the plant, BrightSource Energy, had to agree to a lot of conditions, including reptile relocation.

Vaughn, a biologist from Texas, and her colleague Peter Woodman are leading a team of 50 biologists hired to survey the site over and over before construction begins. They have to keep track of every single tortoise.

"This is one that was walking down the middle of the road when it was spotted by one of the monitors," Woodman says. "Luckily, we've got a radio transmitter on it now."

He's looking at an adult female tortoise; she's about the size of a dinner plate, and the transmitter is glued to her shell. It almost looks like a stray twig.

Checkups For Tortoises

The biologists also do health assessments, which include weighing, measuring and checking the tortoises for unusual markings, and taking a blood sample.

Tortoises don't really like that kind of attention, and sometimes, they let the scientists know.

"They will pee," Woodman says. "And they can pee copiously if they have a full bladder."

He's talking from personal experience: "It does have an odor. It's a musky scent."

Controversy Over Relocation

All this health care comes ahead of a major relocation. The tortoises can't stay where construction crews might harm them, so the biologists are moving them to pens to ride out the desert winter. In the spring, they'll try relocating them to the wild.

BrightSource is spending more than $40 million to protect plants and wildlife. That includes buying acres of land to keep as nature preserves.

Compared to the more than $2 billion the solar plant will cost, though, it's a drop in the bucket. And conservationists like Michael Connor of the Western Watershed Project say that the millions aren't getting the job done.

"Those tortoises will slowly die away," Connor says. "It's very unlikely we'll have a sustainable population."

The biologists are doing everything they can to prove Connor wrong, including helping tortoises with problems that have nothing to do with BrightSource.

Hazards Of The Road

Vaughn spots a tortoise with a crushed shell that is trying to move its legs, but they barely wriggle. It's the type of injury tortoises get when an all-terrain vehicle or motorcycle accidentally rides over them.

"Pete! We have a tortoise that's been hit," she beckons.

Another biologist comes and drives the injured tortoise to a shelter in Las Vegas where vets will try to save it. The bill could run thousands of dollars -- all on the solar company’s tab.

National Public Radio

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bubble Spotters

FDIC chair warns of possible US farmland 'bubble'


Mon Oct 18, 2010 4:14pm EDT
* Says U.S. farmland values requires "close monitoring."
* Farmland values 58 percent above 2000 levels
By Carey Gillam    Reuters
KANSAS CITY, Mo., Oct 18 (Reuters) - U.S. farmland could be the next asset bubble at risk for bursting, a leading banking regulator said on Monday.
Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., said it was important to monitor U.S. farmland values for signs of instability like the price bubbles in the housing and stock markets that burst with disastrous consequences for many investors.
Farmland values remain 58 percent above their 2000 levels in inflation-adjusted terms. Investors have been snapping up high-quality land in the Midwest where row crops like corn and soybeans are grown as well as orchards for high-priced nuts and berries along the U.S. West Coast.
While commercial and residential real estate prices have fallen sharply, farmland valuations have remained strong during the recession. But Bair said those "positive fundamentals" could change.
"A sharp decline in farmland prices similar to the early 1980s could have a severe adverse impact on the nation's 1,579 farm banks," Bair said in a speech delivered to a risk management group in Baltimore.
"While the credit structure underlying U.S. farmland does not appear to involve excessive leverage or inappropriate loan products, this is a situation that will continue to require close monitoring," she said.
Bair is a member of the newly established Financial Stability Oversight Council made up of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, the FDIC and other financial regulatory authorities. FSOC held its first meeting on Oct. 1.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by David Gregorio)

Friday, October 22, 2010

The cost of a global food chain

latimes.com

Global trade has made the food we eat cheaper. But there's a price to importing food from faraway lands: It increases pollution, alters traditional diets and hurts local farmers.

By Robert Gottlieb

October 20, 2010


Check out the garlic the next time you're in the supermarket. In another era, it might well have been grown in Gilroy, right here in California. But today, chances are that your garlic has traveled across oceans and continents to get to your kitchen.

Most garlic nowadays comes from China. Since 2003, the amount of garlic imported from China has nearly tripled, while the amount grown in California has dropped by nearly half. This means that instead of traveling several hundred miles to get to you, your garlic is probably traveling many thousands.

Moreover, the ships that carry the garlic from China utilize highly toxic bunker fuel that in turn is likely to have come from Venezuela. The big container ships take on the fuel in South America, then travel across the Pacific, where they or other ships pick up the garlic in China and then sail back across the ocean to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. There, it is loaded on trains or trucks, which in turn create additional diesel pollution. The environmental impacts are global, and they are particularly concentrated in each of the destination points, whether in China or here, where ships, trains, trucks and warehouses are located.

So why have we shifted to purchasing Chinese garlic? Even with all the transportation costs, it's cheaper than garlic grown here.

But your savings in the supermarket undercuts farmers in places like Gilroy. Moreover, the Chinese garlic doesn't have the taste or texture of locally produced garlic. And it adds to our trade deficit, contributes to American unemployment and undermines our connection to the food we eat.

The increasing globalization of food commodities isn't just a concern in the United States. In China, PepsiCo — through its Frito-Lay division — has successfully introduced that quintessential American product, potato chips. It has done so, in part, by adhering to Chinese restrictions on what can be introduced into China. The Chinese won't allow crops produced elsewhere to be imported, so Frito-Lay now grows potatoes in China. "PepsiCo is not a farming company. But to build a market, we had to take extra steps like this," the operations director for PepsiCo's China venture told the Wall Street Journal.

With potato chip products like Frito-Lay's "green tea potato chips" joining other fast food products that now flood Chinese stores, the diets of people in China are changing dramatically. One result: Nearly a quarter of the population is overweight or obese, conditions that were virtually unheard of a generation ago. The Chinese are not as obese as we are yet, but they're on their way.

Food has become a global product. That has meant we can sip Chilean wine with our French cheese. And it has meant nothing is ever out of season: We can buy peaches in January and Brussels sprouts in August. But at what cost?

We hear a lot about the benefits of global trade, which has made the food we eat cheaper. But moving food thousands of miles from farm to market increases pollution, alters traditional diets and hurts local farmers. In Carson on Oct. 22-23, an international conference will explore some of the consequences of moving goods such huge distances (for more information, visit http://www.theimpactproject.org).

One thing, though, is abundantly clear: Food is intricately bound up with culture, and when we lose our connection to locally grown food, we also lose a piece of our culture. It's time to begin reconnecting with what we eat.

Robert Gottlieb's latest book, just released and coauthored with Anupama Joshi, is "Food Justice." He is the director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College.

Los Angeles Times

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Egg Production

October 6, 2010

Clean Living in the Henhouse

NORTH MANCHESTER, Ind. — The stuff doesn’t even smell that bad.
In Henhouse No. 1 at the Hi-Grade Egg Farm here, the droppings from 381,000 chickens are carried off along a zig-zagging system of stacked conveyor belts with powerful fans blowing across them.
The excrement takes three days to travel more than a mile back and forth, and when it is finally deposited on a gray, 20-foot high mountain of manure, it has been thoroughly dried out, making it of little interest to the flies and rodents that can spread diseases like salmonella poisoning.
Standing by the manure pile on a recent afternoon, Robert L. Krouse, the president of Midwest Poultry Services, the company that owns the Hi-Grade farm, took a deep breath. The droppings, he declared, smelled sweet, like chocolate.
“This is the kind of thing that gets egg farmers excited,” Mr. Krouse said.
Controlling manure and keeping henhouses clean is essential to combating the toxic strain of salmonella that sickened thousands of people this year and prompted the recall of more than half a billion eggs produced by two companies in Iowa.
Chocolaty smells or not, the Hi-Grade facility appeared very different from the descriptions released by federal investigators of the Iowa farms that produced the recalled eggs. Those farms, most of them owned by Austin J. DeCoster, one of the country’s largest egg producers, were portrayed as filthy and badly maintained, with manure piles teeming with maggots and overflowing from pits beneath henhouses.
Those are not the images the egg industry wants consumers to have. Nor are they necessarily representative of most egg farms, federal regulators and industry officials agree.
Mr. Krouse’s farms were not associated with the recall, and a tour of one of them here in northern Indiana shows that much is being done in the egg industry to fight salmonella.
“We’ve had to completely change the way we look at things,” said Mr. Krouse, who is also chairman of the United Egg Producers, an industry association. “Thirty years ago, farms had flies and farms had mice, everything was exposed to everything else. They just all happily lived together. You can’t work that way anymore.”
Today the hens on Mr. Krouse’s farms come from hatcheries certified to provide chicks free of salmonella. The young birds are vaccinated to create resistance to the bacteria. And then steps are taken to keep them from being exposed to it, primarily by controlling mice and flies that may carry salmonella or spread it around.
That is where the manure drying comes in, although it has other benefits, like preventing bad smells that can bother neighbors.
Many of the henhouses have been built or refurbished in recent years. Henhouse No. 1 is three years old. On the newer henhouses, the bottom two feet of the outer walls are concrete, to make it harder for mice to get inside. The buildings are surrounded by a perimeter of stone and gravel, and the grass between buildings is cut short, to eliminate rodent habitats.
The doors seal tightly, like doors in a modern home rather than old-style barn doors. Bait containers and traps are placed along the walls, and the number of trapped mice is tracked closely to spot any increase in activity.
Visitors are made to dress in head-to-toe white coveralls made of a disposable material — evoking images of workers on the sterile floor of a semiconductor factory, only here there are downy feathers in the air and the racket made by hundreds of thousands of birds in cages stacked to the ceiling.
The suits are meant to keep out germs that visitors may track in from off the farm. They may protect against salmonella, but they are mostly aimed at pathogens that can ravage flocks with diseases like avian influenza and could be tracked in from other farms or places like golf courses that are home to wild geese.
The long, gray, tin-sided henhouses, about two football fields long, have no windows. Surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans, they hum softly with the sound of giant fans.
But everything here is not as modern as the manure drying contraption in Henhouse No. 1.
Nearby is a 12-year-old building, Henhouse No. 6.
Here more than 200,000 birds live on the house’s second floor, in cages stacked in an A-frame configuration, with an opening at the center that allows the droppings to fall into a cavernous ground floor space below.
Mr. Krouse said that just a few years ago this design was considered the most advanced, and it is still prevalent throughout the egg industry, including the henhouses at the Iowa farms involved in the recall.
At the farms in Iowa, inspectors found manure piles eight feet deep in some barns, with the manure overflowing and bursting through doors. Escaped chickens were seen loose in the manure and there were flies and maggots, according to the Food and Drug Administration inspection reports.
Once again, the picture was very different here. At the Hi-Grade barn, the manure was only about six inches deep, lying in five mounds, about four feet wide and 600 feet long, on the floor beneath the long arrays of cages. Mr. Krouse said the houses were cleaned out in early August.
Here, there was no suggestion of chocolate smells. The air had an ammonia bite, although it was far from overpowering. And there were flies, though not in large numbers (in part because of plenty of fly traps).
Gary E. Casper, a farm manager, said the key to controlling flies and rodents in this type of barn was to keep the manure dry. Large fans around the room kept the air moving. And he said it was crucial to watch for problems in the system that carries water to the birds in the cages above, and to stop leaks before they can soak the manure piles.
Many egg producers have been working for years to keep salmonella out of their flocks. Midwest Poultry began testing barns for salmonella in the late 1990s and has never found the toxic strain that can infect eggs.
In July, the F.D.A. put in place a set of egg safety rules that all producers must follow, with an emphasis on testing and rodent control. For companies like Midwest, that has meant only minor adjustments. The company, which has a total of six million laying hens in three states, spent about $200,000 upgrading refrigeration equipment to meet stricter rules for cooling eggs to prevent the growth of bacteria.
Mr. Krouse sells eggs to the large supermarket chains Kroger and Wal-Mart, and he says that those stores now scrutinize their farm suppliers much as they would a food manufacturing company.
“They’re looking at us as just another part of their food production system,” he said.
A.J. Mast for The New York Times
Hens at Midwest Poultry Services come from hatcheries certified to provide chicks free of salmonella. More Photos »

Related

A.J. Mast for The New York Times
Sergio Hernandez viewing cages in an egg-laying house owned by Midwest Poultry Services in northern Indiana.More Photos »

Friday, October 8, 2010

Costs of Affordable Food

THOUGHT FOR FOOD

No Free Locavore Lunch

By VIRGINIA POSTREL, Wall Street Journal


Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and a leading advocate of buying locally grown food, recently upset many of his fans by daring to put numbers on his oft-repeated prescription to "pay more, eat less." Eight dollars for a dozen eggs? $3.90 for a pound of peaches?

Those figures were way too specific and way, way too high to go unnoticed. The humanistic foe of industrialized eating suddenly sounded like a privileged elitist, and the local-food cause seemed insensitive to cash-strapped shoppers.

But Mr. Pollan was only being honest. Patronizing local farmers who produce in small batches tends to cost more. You may find some peak-season bargains at the farmers' market, but there's no such thing as a free locavore lunch. Getting fruits and vegetables only from local farms necessarily limits variety—few crops are available everywhere all the time—and it doesn't come cheap. Economies of scale apply even to produce.

Mr. Pollan's critics sound a lot like Jackie Mason back in the 1990s, mocking Starbucks for "charging you three dollars for 50 cents worth of coffee." Taste is subjective. So is economic value. The right price is the one you're willing to pay.

Take those peaches. Last week, my local supermarket ran a one-day sale: yellow peaches for just 47 cents a pound. Compared with the usual $1.99 a pound, it was quite a bargain. And unlike the store's mealy, full-priced white peaches, the cheap fruit didn't taste bad. I've had worse from farmers' markets. By the standards of my South Carolina childhood, however, where peaches came in baskets from roadside stands, these crisp, faintly flavored orbs were an entirely different fruit.

Ripe peaches are soft and hard to ship, so supermarkets and many farmers' markets sell ones that haven't ripened fully. An unripe peach will soften if you wait a few days, but it won't sweeten. For that, it has to stay on the tree. The only peaches I've ever bought in California that tasted properly delicious cost $3.25 a pound— enough to make up for the ripened fruit inevitably lost between orchard and market. Other buyers may not care, but I consider cheap peaches a waste of money. I don't blame San Francisco foodies like Mr. Pollan for paying $3.90 a pound. They can always cut back on the cappuccinos.

Like tastemakers from Anna Wintour to Steve Jobs, Mr. Pollan is just trying to persuade the public to share his sense of excellence and, with it, his willingness to pay. The real problem with his prescriptions isn't economic elitism but produce xenophobia. The locavore ideal is a world without trade, not only beyond national borders but even from the next state: no Florida oranges in Colorado or California grapes in New Mexico, no Vidalia onions in New York or summer spinach in Georgia.

Fully realized, that ideal would eliminate one of the great culinary advances of the past half century. Unripe peaches notwithstanding, today's supermarket produce departments are modern marvels. American grocery shoppers have choices that would have been unimaginable only a few decades ago. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the only way to get fresh spinach or leaf lettuce was to plant a garden. Avocados were an exotic treat, asparagus came in a can, and pomegranates existed only in books.

Now my neighborhood supermarket sells five types of lettuce, plus spinach, endive, escarole, radicchio, frisée, rapini, three kinds of chard, mustard greens, dandelion greens and kale. That's not including all the cabbages—or, of course, the prewashed salads in a bag that have particularly boosted fresh-spinach purchases. In this ordinary produce department, you can buy not only avocados, asparagus and pomegranates, but everything from purple baby cauliflowers to spiky kiwano melons that look like some kind of scary deep-sea creature. Need portobello mushrooms, Japanese eggplant or organic ginger at 2 a.m.? The store is open 24/7.

This cornucopia of choice and convenience is a tribute to logistical ingenuity and gains from trade, the very progress the local-food movement is sworn to overturn. For those of us blessed with a Mediterranean climate, giving up imports means higher prices. For everyone else, it means a far more limited diet. New Yorkers sometimes complain about farmers' markets that seem to sell only varieties of apples. Were they expecting locally grown oranges and mangoes? Coffee and spices from the plantations of East Hampton?

The local-food movement's ideological parochialism would be dangerous if it were somehow enacted into law. But as persuasion, it tends to focus on the positive: the delights of local peaches and fresh cider, not the imagined evils of Chilean blueberries and prepeeled baby carrots. In this regard, it resembles the English Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. William Morris, who is remembered today more for his wallpaper and book designs than for his social theories, didn't manage to overturn the industrial revolution. But he and his allies left a legacy of beautiful things. Pleasure is persuasive.

—Virginia Postrel is the author of "The Future and Its Enemies" and "The Substance of Style."

Soaring prices threaten new food crisis

By Gregory Meyer in New York and Javier Blas in London


Published: October 8 2010 18:32 | Last updated: October 8 2010 22:06
Fears of a global food crisis swept the world’s commodity markets as prices for staples such as corn, rice and wheat spiralled after the US government warned of “dramatically” lower supplies.
An especially hot summer in the US, droughts in countries including Russia and Brazil and heavy rain in Canada and Europe have hit many grain and oilseed crops this year. This has raising concern of a severe squeeze in food supplies and a repeat of the 2007-08 food crisis.
The US Department of Agriculture, in a closely watched report, predicted that the country’s stocks of corn would halve to their lowest levels in 14 years.
It warned of a “much tighter supply picture” for corn and barley, the two main feedstocks used to fatten cows, sheep, pigs and poultry.
Shares in some of the world’s biggest meat packers tumbled. US-listed Tyson Foods fell 7.7 per cent. Shares in other food producers also declined.
“I think we have a food crisis right now,” said Hussein Allidina, head of commodities research at Morgan Stanley.
In Chicago, the prices of agricultural commodities jumped so sharply that they hit limits imposed on daily movement by the city’s futures exchange, the biggest in the world.
Traders, unable to use futures contracts because of the limits on trading, bid indicative corn prices to $5.65 a bushel in the options market, a rise of 13.3 per cent on the day.

Wheat prices

The wheat market
Find out what is behind the recent spike in wheat prices in our interactive graphic. Plus: video analysis and country-by-country data
In Paris, European wheat prices rose 10 per cent, while the cost of other commodities including soyabeans, sugar, cotton, barley and oats soared.
The rise in prices sent the Reuters-Jefferies CRB commodities index to a two-year high.
The USDA shocked traders by forecasting in its monthly report that the country’s corn farmers would harvest about 12.7bn bushels in the 2010-11 crop year that started in September. This is down 4 per cent from the USDA’s previous estimate.
The drop would slash the country’s stocks to 900m bushels, the lowest level since 1996-97. The USDA also cut wheat and soya production estimates.
“This revision highlights that we are in a very fragile supply and demand situation,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome.
The US is the world’s largest corn grower and its exports make up the majority of global trade in the grain. The USDA had earlier forecast a record corn crop this year but a combination of unfavourable heat and heavy rains forced a re-evaluation of yields.
The fall in supplies has prompted countries such as Russia and Ukraine to impose export restrictions on grains.
Big importers in the Middle East and North Africa have started to hoard supplies, which has further tightened the market.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Technology helps track food from farm to table

Recalls push more companies to adopt digital tools that can prevent or contain the harm caused by contaminated food.

By P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times

October 3, 2010

Reporting from San Jose


Inside a Silicon Valley company's windowless vault, massive servers silently monitor millions of heads of lettuce, from the time they are plucked from the dirt to the moment the bagged salad is scanned at the grocery checkout counter.

That trail can be traced in seconds, thanks to tiny high-tech labels, software programs and hand-held hardware gear. Such tools make it easier for farmers to locate possible problems — a leaky fertilizer bin, an unexpected pathogen in the water, unwashed hands on a factory floor — and more quickly halt the spread of contaminated food.

This Dole Food Co. project and similar efforts being launched across the country represent a fundamental shift in the way that food is tracked from field to table. The change is slow but steady as a number of industry leaders and smaller players adopt these tools.

Much of the farming community has yet to follow suit, and federal food-safety legislation is stalled in Congress. But proponents of this digital transformation said it was inevitable given public outrage over the recent scandal over contaminated eggs. They said technology could simplify the nation's highly complicated food-safety system, helping prevent or contain the harm caused by recalled food.

"The driving force in all this is the recalls," said Ashish Chona, chief executive of InSync Software in San Jose, whose technology is used by Dole in Salinas Valley. "A recall can bring a company to its knees. Everyone knows it."

It's also a potential economic bonanza for California, which has been on the leading edge of this convergence between two of the state's largest and most powerful industries: technology and agriculture.

IBM Corp. is in talks with a leading growers association in California to roll out a computerized tracing system for its members. This week Intelleflex Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., is attaching tracking labels to plastic food bins so the Hawaii Department of Agriculture can keep an eye on tomatoes, pineapples and other produce grown and sold on the islands.

YottaMark Inc. in Redwood City is helping more than 2,000 farms in North America track their yams, berries and other produce from the field to the store. Lotpath Inc. in Fresno has been hired by farmers eager to watch over their peaches and nectarines. Infratab Inc., a smart-chip and logistics firm in Oxnard, is working with grape growers in the Golden State and ensuring that more of the fruit arrives at its peak — and less is lost to spoilage.

In general, such trace-back systems work in a way that's similar to how Federal Express tracks its packages. On the farm, animals and crop sections are given a "smart" label with a unique identifying number. The label is then attached to a bin, crate or container used for transport.

Workers then can use a hand-held computer or smart phone to scan the labels and record key information, such as date and time, location, workplace temperature and which truck hauled the food away. The information is usually uploaded to a central online database, where it is stored and can be accessed via the Web.

Each time the food moves or is handled by someone new, the data can be updated and recorded.

"If computers can be used to track individual bottles of drugs throughout the supply chain in the pharmaceutical industry, then why not food?" asked Paul Chang, who heads IBM's traceability initiative. The Armonk, N.Y., company also is working with Thailand's Ministry of Agriculture to track the production of mangos and chickens for export to the U.S.

But some farmers and suppliers aren't sold on the idea. They argue that such technology can be costly and gives only a partial snapshot of what's happening in a barn or field.

There are also cultural barriers to overcome. Many farmers, comfortable with cutting-edge tools in the field and processing factory, are still rooted in the Luddite tradition of using pen and paper in the office.

"The attitude is 'I'm not having problems on my farm, so why spend money fixing something that already works?'" said Mike Dodson, chief executive of traceability software firm Lotpath.

Agriculture, by its very nature, is transitory. An apple can make five stops before a consumer takes a bite. The fruit is picked from a grove, trucked to a sorting center, boxed at a packing company, sent to a distribution warehouse, and finally unloaded and placed on display counters at a grocery store. Each location would have a different method for recording and storing data.

Add to that the sheer volume of food consumed: 6 billion cases of produce travel across the U.S. each year — and that's just fruits and vegetables.

What's currently in place is a logistics nightmare. When the federal government enacted the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, the agriculture and food industries were required to put into place "one-up, one-down" traceability. That means each company is supposed to know what's going on inside its four walls, where its raw materials came from and where its products were being sent.

That way, in theory, the nation's food-supply chain could be connected, making it relatively easy to track a recalled food, such as eggs. In practice, it can take weeks or months for federal investigators to hunt down such information.

This summer's egg recall served as a clear example. It took federal investigators weeks to wind through public health databases, mountains of paperwork and antiquated accounting systems before finally unearthing the source of the contamination. (The salmonella outbreak sickened more than 1,600 people and led to the recall of 550 million Iowa eggs.)

As a result, food recalls in the U.S. are often overly broad, and safe food gets tossed out by harried retailers and nervous consumers. Other recalls take so long to get launched that they're essentially too late to be effective. Of the 69 voluntary food recalls the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service initiated in 2009, 57 came up short in recovering contaminated products.

In fact, it was a massive recall that persuaded some of the country's largest vegetable farmers to put down their clipboards and go digital.

In 2006, a nationwide E. coli O157:H7 outbreak killed five people and sickened more than 200 in 26 states. Investigators traced the spinach to a 50-acre field in California's San Benito County leased by Mission Organics. The most likely source of the contaminant was wild pigs. The spinach was sold under a Dole label. In April 2007, Dole and two other firms agreed to confidential settlements in the deaths of three women.

Dole's fresh-vegetables division reached out to Chona of InSync Software, whose technology had been developed to help computer manufacturers track the distribution of electronic parts.

"They said, 'We should be able to figure out where every bin of lettuce is harvested and where it goes,'" Chona said.

Dole called other tech firms too. Over time, the agribusiness giant pieced together a system that married several existing technologies, including scanning equipment, mobile phones and global positioning system navigation. Now officials can trace down the GPS coordinates of a field where the lettuce was picked, pinpointing the location to within about 100 feet.

They haven't had a contamination problem since the system was put into place, Dole Food spokesman Marty Ordman said.

"We've expanded it to our spring mixes and are expanding to more products," Ordman said. "For the [farmers] that are part of our growing program, they share and track this information, too."

The spinach recall also was a wake-up call for Growers Express in Salinas, a leading produce growing and packing company. Three of the company's growers were initially implicated in the outbreak. Chief Executive Jamie Strachan recalled how, at the time, he looked out his office window one morning and "every spot was filled with dark vans, and guys getting out with FBI jackets on. Most had guns."

Though the growers were later cleared, sales still plummeted as the public's appetite for spinach soured.

Strachan hired TrueTrac, a Salinas traceability firm. Last summer the tech firm started training Growers Express foremen on how to use the hand-held scanners and print out labels in the field. A year of testing followed.

Strachan said he discovered some unexpected benefits. The production process worked more smoothly. Warehouse managers were able to go online and figure out how much produce was coming out of a particular field, with little hassle.

Still, such technology has drawbacks. Human error can clog up the system. So can fraud.

And the technology's not cheap. Although radio frequency ID, or RFID, tags generally cost less than a quarter each, that small sum adds up quickly for operations handling millions of bags of lettuce or cartons of eggs. Bar code labels, on the other hand, cost less than half a cent each. But each has to be manually scanned, a labor-intensive process.

California Olive Ranch, the nation's largest olive grower, spent half a million dollars two years ago to switch from a paper-based tracking system to a digitized one. It annually costs an additional $100,000 to $200,000 to operate, CEO Gregg Kelley said.

But the marketing benefits pay off, Kelley said. He's launching a website that allows consumers to see where the olives inside their bottles were grown and when they were crushed.

"We know people want to know where their food comes from," Kelley said, and some will pay a premium for that knowledge.

Few companies understand that consumer trend better than Germany's Metro Group. Over the last three years it has rolled out a farm-to-fork tracking system for 1,500 Star Farm products carried in its Metro Cash & Carry stores in China — a country of recurring food scares, including the 2008 discovery of melamine in milk powder that sickened thousands of children and killed at least six.

Company officials said that if farmers want to sell their products to Metro, they must print out identification labels on each bin shipped and electronically submit tracking data to the retailer's online database. So far, 11,700 farmers and 80 suppliers have joined the program. The stores also have kiosks that let consumers scan a package's bar code and see where an apple was picked or which day a chicken arrived at a slaughterhouse.

Silvester Macho, Metro's chief information officer, said by phone from Düsseldorf that its Star Farm line had seen double-digit sales growth year over year. Suppliers and industry sources say a small but growing number of retailers in Asia and elsewhere are talking about requiring their suppliers to use digital trace-back systems that can be accessed online.

Back in the U.S., federal and state lawmakers have proposed various legislation to set traceability standards, though such efforts have lagged in recent months.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, trying to improve food-safety efforts, is networking its various computer systems that store field test results and inspection data — but currently don't talk to one another. This Public Health Information System, expected to be ready by spring 2011, should let investigators "see trends as they're occurring" and react faster, said Al Almanza, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Eager to avoid government regulation, the industry itself is trying to take the lead. So far, the results are piecemeal.

Western Growers Assn., which represents 3,000 fruit, nut and vegetable producers in California and Arizona, is holding digital tracking workshops for its members to see what gear is available. Produce trade associations in the U.S. and Canada joined forces and rolled out the Produce Traceability Initiative. Among other things, the effort calls for standardized traceability. The goal is to have the voluntary plan adopted industrywide by 2012.

Ultimately it may come down to retailers forcing the industry to change; many are frustrated by the legal and public relations fallout of food-safety problems. Several grocery chains, including the Southeast and mid-Atlantic grocery chain Food Lion, are refusing to do business with suppliers who don't comply with the Produce Traceability Initiative by the 2012 deadline.

"Even if lawmakers can't get a bill passed, the movement is afoot," said John Ryan, an administrator with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

Last year, Ryan said, officials from Starwood Hotels came to his office pleading for food-safety tracing standards. The hoteliers, Ryan said, didn't want tourists getting sick and further harming their business, already hard-hit by the country's sour economy.

"They can drag their feet all they want," Ryan said. "One way or another, traceability is coming."

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com