retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Wall Street Journal this morning has a story about how start-up companies are developing technologies that will allow people with smartphones top use them to ascertain the safety of the food they are about to eat or serve to their families.

"What if you could know exactly what you’re putting in your mouth, down to the last bite? What if we all had the ability to inspect our food in a way previously accessible only to chemists with costly laboratories?

"The power to scan our environment at a molecular level, with devices no bigger than our smartphones, is coming. In some cases, it is already here, thanks to a handful of startups.

"The Nima from 6SensorLabs is an organic-chemistry lab small enough to carry in your pocket. Right now it is only good for one thing: detecting gluten in foods at minuscule concentrations, as little as 20 parts per million, the FDA’s threshold for declaring a food 'gluten-free.' At $250 for the device and $5 per disposable reaction chamber, it isn’t for the trendy gluten avoider, but rather diagnosed celiac sufferers who become seriously ill when they are 'glutened' by packaged goods and restaurant fare that isn’t carefully prepared.

"But in the future ... it could be adapted to recognize all manner of proteins—including ones that would allow it to recognize bacterial contaminants such as E. coli and salmonella."

While we are early in the process of developing such mobile technologies, the Journal concludes, "We have invented and made ubiquitous electronics that can see, hear and even feel with exquisite sensitivity, but the ability to analyze and break down the very constituents of our world—through something like smell and taste but with far more acuity than what’s accomplished by nature—will almost certainly create whole new applications, markets and billion-dollar businesses."
KC's View:
On the face of it, this would seem like a good thing ... and probably inevitable, as technologies improve and customers demand a higher level of accountability and transparency from the companies they patronize. But it isn't hard to imagine this turning into a nightmare for businesses, as consumers bring their smartphones into stores and restaurants and use them to evaluate the food they're buying, even before they actually buy it.

Again, this probably is inevitable ... but it almost certainly will demand a higher level of vigilance and expertise from companies trying to establish their food credibility. Then again, companies that misguidedly believe that speed trumps quality won't care ... though I think this opinion may also be misguided. (See our next editorial story...)