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Imagine you could know exactly where your food comes from, how it was grown, what kind of soil it was grown in and how it was handled and distributed. What if you could find out whether you should eat it based on your dietary needs or how you should cook it based on your own preferences? UC Davis experts are helping build this food information superhighway, known as the Internet of Food. In this episode, we’ll talk to a UC Davis expert working to engineer the new computable infrastructure about how the Internet of Food will help make food more transparent, traceable and personalized.

In this episode:

Matthew Lange, food and health informatician at UC Davis and principal investigator of IC-Foods. He’s assembling, designing and building the Internet of Food.


Amy Quinton Hey, Alexa, did you ever watch Portlandia?

Alexa Renee Not really, but I did see a couple of scenes, I guess, here and there.

Amy Quinton There was that one skit that I'll never forget called Colin the Chicken. It was the very first episode.

Alexa Renee OK, wait, that's that's actually one of the ones I had seen.

Amy Quinton Yeah. It's where Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are in a restaurant and begin to ask their waiters about the chicken on the menu.

Portlandia Outtake Let me know. I guess I do have a question about the chicken. If you could just tell us a little bit more about it. The chicken is a heritage breed, woodland raised chicken that's been fed a diet of sheep's milk, soy and hazelnuts. This is local. Yes, absolutely. I'm going to ask you just one more time. And it's local. It is.

Amy Quinton So you have to realize they're playing these hipster bohemian types. They're really concerned about where their food comes from and whether it's organic or not.

Alexa Renee Yeah. And then they start to, like, really overwhelm the waitress with, like, all these questions..

Portlandia Outtake Hazelnuts. These are local. How big is the area where the chickens are able to roam free? I'm sorry to interrupt. I have exactly the same question. Four acres.

Amy Quinton Finally, the waitress brings out a portfolio about the chicken, like adoption papers.

Alexa Renee With full color photos.

Portlandia Outtake So here is the chicken you'll be enjoying tonight. You have this information for me. This is fantastic. Absolutely. His name was Colin. Here are his papers. OK, that's great. He looks like a happy guy. He runs around a lot of friends, other chickens as friends, putting his little wing around another one and kind of like palling around. I don't know that I can speak to that level of intimate knowledge about him. They do a lot to make sure that their chickens are very happy.

Alexa Renee OK, that's that's just ridiculous. And it doesn't even end there. It goes on. She asks who raised the chicken and then they actually end up driving to the farm to verify it.

Amy Quinton They nail that stereotype so well. But let's face it, a lot of people think it's important to know where their food comes from.

Alexa Renee But sometimes we just don't know. We have to trust what's on the label, right. Or where the store tells us it's from. And even then, there's limited information.

Amy Quinton But imagine if you could know exactly where your food came from, how it was grown, what kind of soil it grew in and how it's handled. What if you could find out whether you should eat it based on your own health needs? And you could do this in minutes, even seconds.

Alexa Renee This may sound like something from another planet, right? I mean, our food system is completely fragmented.

Amy Quinton Yeah, but the internet of food could change all that.

Alexa Renee OK, honestly, I just don't understand the internet of food.

Amy Quinton Well, we're going to try to unfold it

Alexa Renee so we can find out if the chicken is local,

Amy Quinton which is why the name of this episode is

Alexa Renee Is the Chicken Local?

Amy Quinton Coming to you from our basement studios at UC Davis, this is Unfold, a podcast where we break down complicated problems and discuss solutions. I'm Amy Quinton.

Alexa Renee And I'm Alexa Renee.

Amy Quinton If we were to talk about all the ways the internet of food could help society, this episode would never end.

Alexa Renee But there is a guy who could explain it all to you, and that's Matthew Lange. He's a UC Davis food and health informatician.

Amy Quinton We caught up with him at a Sacramento restaurant. Here's the first thing Matthew told us about the Internet of food.

Matthew Lange It's not a website. It's not a database. It's essentially a way of gathering together a whole new Internet.

Amy Quinton Imagine trying to describe the Internet to someone before it was invented.

Alexa Renee Or the World Wide Web.

Amy Quinton In a nutshell, Matthew is working to engineer this new system. To really understand all of it, you first need to know about the Internet of Things.

Alexa Renee That's probably something most people have heard of.

Amy Quinton Yeah, but we should explain it just in case. So I thought it would be cool to ask my echo device, you know, Amazon's smart speaker. Alexa, good morning.

Echo Device Good morning. Today is Paul Bunyan day. A day to revel in the lure of the supersized lumberjack who is said to have eaten 50 pancakes in a minute and carved out the Grand Canyon with an ax. Hopefully he didn't actually have bunions because I bet they'd be the size of a horse.

Alexa Renee OK, first of all, I didn't even know that there was a Paul Bunyan day and ew bunions on your feet or just gross.

Amy Quinton Yeah. So after that distraction, I got to the point. Alexa, what is the Internet of Things?

Echo Device Internet of Things usually refers to a network of everyday devices, appliances and other objects equipped with computer chips and sensors that can collect and transmit data through the Internet.

Alexa Renee So clearly your Echo, because I refused to call it an Alexa, is part of the Internet of Things.

Amy Quinton Yeah, I'm just wondering why she didn't say 'I am a perfect example of the Internet of Things.'

Alexa Renee Well, she's obviously not as smart as me, this Alexa.

Amy Quinton Well, the Internet of Things also includes things like smart home devices, smart thermostats, soil sensors, your smart car robotics, all of these physical devices connected to the Internet in some way.

Alexa Renee And Matthew says that there's a connection between the Internet of Things and the Internet of Food.

Matthew Lange Partially, the Internet of Food is data about food from the Internet of Things because we can track food. We can track how it grows. We can take pictures of the corn plants as they're growing in the field. We can take pictures with drones. We can we have Earth observation data from NASA. So we have all kinds of ways of tracking data about food.

Amy Quinton Get it? All kinds of physical devices are already tracking food. And then there are other data about food data you might get directly from the Internet or data like the genomics or molecular components of food.

Alexa Renee Yeah, and there's nutritional information about food, economic data about food. The list just goes on and on. Right.

Amy Quinton But all of that data is fragmented.

Alexa Renee Matthew is trying to change that.

Matthew Lange What we're doing, we're building a common language for all of these things to be able to talk to each other

Amy Quinton By common language. He means a common computer language.

Alexa Renee So think of building the Internet of Food as building HTML language or hypertext markup language, which every Web browser can understand.

Amy Quinton We can markup text for bold or italic or new paragraph or whatever, building the internet of food would be built the same way.

Matthew Lange So instead of marking up text, we can markup food for, you know, its level of ripeness or how it was processed or how it was grown. So whether you're talking about molecules inside of a piece of food or whether you're talking about, as that food moves through the supply chain or whether you're talking about, you know, observing that food from space. We want to share a common language where sensors and robotics and scientific investigations can all use the same terminologies to operate over that data. And that is the Internet of food.

Alexa Renee OK, but Amy, I still don't really understand how this would work, especially from a consumer's perspective. How would I even access this information?

Amy Quinton Well, there would be lots of different interfaces, right? Like you could use your phone's QR scanning capabilities to find out a lot more than just what's on the label of your food, because maybe you'd have its molecular structure or more information about where it was grown rather than just knowing who manufactured it, which is about all you can find out right now. The Internet of Food could be accessed through apps. There would be web interfaces or robotics that could transmit data to the Internet. Matthew isn't building the interface. He's building the language.

Alexa Renee So let's talk about how the Internet of Food could help consumers. He mentioned tracing food. This is going to be able to tell us if our chicken was local without having to drive out to the farm to verify it.

Amy Quinton Yeah, this is a difficult thing to do now, not with all food, but with a lot of it. And I had read once that Wal-Mart tried to trace where a package of sliced mangoes came from, you know, from farm to consumer. Apparently, it took them six days, eight hours and 26 minutes.

Alexa Renee That is so scary.

Amy Quinton Yeah. I mean, it could be, especially if you're talking about a food safety issue. But then Wal-Mart hooked up with IBM and used block chain technology to trace the food back to its source. And get this, it took two point two seconds.

Alexa Renee That's unbelievable, but shouldn't we explain block chain?

Amy Quinton It's pretty complicated, but since this is called unfold, I'll try. In this example, I'm talking about an agricultural block chain at each point in the supply chain. Each transaction, like where the food is sold or processed or distributed, is logged onto a computer or a physical device. That happens now. But all of those transactions are fragmented, which is why it takes Wal-Mart or any retailer so long to trace food. In agricultural block chain, farmers, processors, distributors and retailers would have information that comes before them and after them and a digital ledger. So no one owns this digital log, which makes it secure and transparent.

Alexa Renee OK, so how does that connect with the Internet of Food?

Amy Quinton What Matthew is doing is writing computer languages about food that can take data from the agricultural block chain and let that data talk with other data, say data from the Internet of Things. It's creating interoperability.

Alexa Renee So that would help consumers by potentially preventing food contamination.

Matthew Lange Once we have a common language that we can annotate all this data, we're going to have a much clearer picture on why certain outbreaks happen, when they happen, where they happen. And that's going to have huge implications for being able to prevent them in the future.

Alexa Renee We could also prevent food waste, right. We'd stop having to throw away so much food because of a safety scare.

Amy Quinton Right. And Matthew told us another way the Internet of Food would help consumers, and that's transparency. Here's how Matthew described that.

Matthew Lange You may desire to know that, you know, you're the animals you're eating were treated well before they die in some way. Or maybe you care about the fact that, you know, there weren't any phosphates used to grow one of the crops.

Alexa Renee I asked Matthew whether everyone in the food supply chain would embrace the Internet of Food. There may be some things farmers or food companies don't want the consumer to know. What if they don't want to tell consumers, for example, that their food was grown using certain pesticides?

Amy Quinton That's true. Traceability and transparency may not be absolute. I mean, some information will be voluntary. But Matthew thinks the more transparent our food systems become, the more those companies that do reveal information like how their animals were raised or treated would actually have a competitive advantage.

Matthew Lange And as that transparency increases, it becomes a competitive point. And so the less transparent you are, the less competitive you're going to end up being. This isn't going to happen overnight. There are always going to be people who want to game the system. But I do think that it's going to be a win for consumers and it's going to be a win for our environment because people are going to be able to make decisions about things and the ways that things were grown or processed that they haven't previously been able to have insight into.

Alexa Renee One other idea about the Internet of Food that I found amazing was this idea that it can help you in the kitchen.

Amy Quinton Yeah, the digital kitchen already exists, right?

Alexa Renee Ovens that can sense what your chicken weighs and set the proper time to cook it.

Amy Quinton And refrigerators that can sense when you're out of milk.

Alexa Renee Combine that with your Fitbit data and data that you may have stored about your dietary needs.

Amy Quinton And the Internet of Food will be able to suggest what recipe you should make based on the ingredients in your fridge and your dietary needs. It could take you through the steps to make a certain dish and even preheat the oven for you at just the right time while you are making it.

Alexa Renee It's pretty cool, but maybe the Internet of Food doesn't sound like something that you'd like.

Amy Quinton We've been talking a lot about food related topics on this season's unfold that you may not have liked or maybe you've even strongly disagreed with.

Alexa Renee Which is why next time on unfold, we'll be talking to a UC Davis expert in American Studies and Food Science about why food can be so controversial.

Amy Quinton Thanks for listening.