Environment

Great Tech Innovation: Find Food Health and Safety Info From Your Phone

Use your phone to access Goodguide.com and check product information on a free, socially conscious, ethical-shopping Web site.

The price of a dysfunctional food system is a potentially dangerous dinner. To put it bluntly, in our profit-driven food system, the very nutrients needed to stay alive could kill you. If it's not Chinese melamine in your milk, it's American E.coli in your spinach. If it's not the salmonella in your peanut butter from Georgia, it's that same bug in your Mexican green chilies. Consumers -- health conscious or not -- have a right to be paranoid.

What's to be done?

Try GoodGuide.com. The San Francisco start-up is a free, socially conscious, ethical-shopping Web site and is adding a new set of pages to its site devoted to food safety on March 16. The site is the brainchild of Dara O'Rourke, a University of California, Berkeley associate professor of environmental science, policy and management, and it offers more than you ever wanted to know about those mystery ingredients in your cereal, as well as the environmental footprint and the labor practices that go into manufacturing the roughly 30,000 packaged foods found in your local Safeway, Lucky or Ralph's.

"GoodGuide wants to give you X-ray vision," explains O'Rourke, who founded the site in 2008. "We can give you the information the retailers never want to tell you." He says retailers and marketing mavens spend billions of dollars on those 2 feet between your eyeballs and a box of Twix. "We are trying to cut a little tiny hole through that wall of marketing money. Here, in your hand, you can have independent information, a personal scientist in your pocket to help you live your own values in the market place."

Here's how it works. You stand "Lost in the Supermarket" in the central food aisles of your grocery store. Pull out a cell phone. Dial 41411, text in "gguide" and the bar code/universal product code of the product in question and hit send. (You can also text in product names or categories.) In seconds you'll have product information. On an iPhone it's even easier. Download the free application at the iPhone store -- as over 100,000 others have done -- and browse online as you shop.

"We rate all packaged processed foods," says O'Rourke. Brands and products evaluated include Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nabisco, Heinz, Hains, Celestial Seasoning, Yoplait, Kashi and even Boca Burgers. There is one caveat: GoodGuide does not yet evaluate fresh vegetables, seafood or meat. Nor does it rate Trader Joe's or Safeway's specific product lines.

The Ratings

Using a combined staff of 11 self-professed tech geeks and product life cycle nerds, O'Rourke has crunched vast amounts of data to come up with GoodGuide food evaluations. The new food ratings are similar to the site's other product evaluations in that they rate potential health hazards, environmental impact and the social, labor and political practices of manufacturers.

What is new is that the food pages offer a nutritional analysis of the packaged foods. O'Rourke uses a standard nutritional measure to do this, the "3R's," i.e. ratio of restricted-to-recommended nutrients: "We are taking recommended [nutrients and] vitamins A, C, iron, etc., divided by fats, salt, sugar and cholesterol to create a ratio that tells overall how healthy the product is." The site also deconstructs all the mystifying information in the product label on the side of the box. "We rate the additives, colors, etc., and ask if they are hazardous," says O'Rourke, exclaiming, "We have colors used here [in the U.S.] that are banned in Europe!"

Other factors taken into account include whether the product includes GMOs, trans fats or fructose. The site also investigates how far packaged foods were shipped, whether the animals involved were treated humanely and if products are Fair Trade or organically certified.

Despite all that, it can still be hard to judge the actual environmental impact of a food product. Does it make more sense to buy organic blueberries flown in from Chile or conventionally grown strawberries from the U.S.? What should consumers do in colder climes? For example, does it make sense to fly oranges into Great Britain from Israel, or should Brits buy English greenhouse-grown oranges? Believe it or not, says O'Rourke, it is less environmentally damaging to fly oranges in than grow them in fossil-fueled greenhouses.

But one important thing all consumers can do to reduce their environmental and carbon footprint, says O'Rourke, is "eat less meat." This is because of the amount of energy and grain/corn needed to feed the animals, as well as the pollutants emitted by the animals and the associated industrial processes.

Partners

Given the scale of the project embarked upon, GoodGuide has had to cooperate with a number of policy, activist and nonprofit organizations to get the data sets necessary to make crosscutting evaluations. Among the groups who gave or contracted out their information are the Environmental Working Group for food-safety information, the Cornucopia Institute for its dairy scorecard, TransFair USA for Fair Trade products, the Center for Food Safety for GMO-free food and Food and Water Watch for rBGH-free dairy products.

Apart from bruised feelings in one instance, due to apparent miscommunications about use of the data, the experience of most groups working with GoodGuide was positive. "We were very happy to be a part of it," says Heather Whitehead, director of the Center for Food Safety's True Food Network.

"The format is really good," says Whitehead. "The GoodGuide is a really good one-stop-shop for people to go to, to find products they feel comfortable with. ... It is very difficult for people looking for specific things when that information is not on the label. Given all the food-safety problems we are having now, it is even more important for people to know what is in their products and where their food is coming from, so they can have a choice and vote with their wallets."

One organization that gave data to GoodGuide did offer a note of caution and declined to offer an endorsement. Pointing out that there are dozens of consumer-interest Web sites, rating hundreds of thousands of products, that group's policy analyst says, "We can't make judgments about which metrics are better or worse, it would be a full-time job just to compare those consumer sites. It is really complicated, that is why we are not endorsing or sponsoring them."

Jean Halloran and Jorgen Wouters of Consumers Report are also withholding judgment until the food section of the GoodGuide goes live. Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, stressed that quality of data going into the site in critical. "How are they distinguishing between products they say are OK or not OK? ... Things like meaningfulness of the data; are the things that go into the label actually important to the consumer, or irrelevant?"

Wouters, senior producer of the Consumers Report Webwatch, said the two things he always rates Web sites on are their privacy policy and contact information. He said GoodGuide's privacy policy was fine, but he dinged them for not having address and contact information easily available.

"It is mentioned that it is affiliated with [UC] Berkeley," he says, but warned, "If you only have an e-mail address, this company could be located across town or in Romania."

A Daughter, a Science Experiment, a New Business

GoodGuide was born of two agendas close to O'Rourke's heart. As a UC Berkeley academic and researcher, he has spent years investigating consumer product supply chains with the goal of making corporations clean up their acts in terms of pollution, human rights and environmental degradation. As a parent, he is concerned about his daughter's health.

During the late 1990s, O'Rourke worked for the U.N. Environmental Program in Southeast Asia, where his research exposed conditions in Vietnamese and Thai factories. As a result of New York Times and other media coverage, major brand names like Nike were forced to take responsibility for labor conditions and toxic releases from their subcontractors' factories. (Readers may remember the Doonesbury series that satirized the subject.) Despite such success, he often felt his reports became doorstops, used once and forgotten. He wanted give his work a longer shelf life and more punch.

Then, a few years ago, he had an epiphany as he applied sunscreen to his daughter's skin realizing, "I study this, yet I know almost nothing about the products I use every day," says O'Rourke. "It annoys me as a parent to be unknowingly doing a health study on my own daughter." He was even more annoyed to find out that one of the ingredients in the sunscreen was a photo-carcinogen, i.e. a chemical that has a carcinogenic effect when sunlight hits it. "Not the most logical thing to put in a sunscreen!"

At the same time, he was finding that his UC Berkeley students wanted quick answers to their ethical shopping dilemmas: Nike or Reebok? Berkeley Bowl or Whole Foods? Palmolive or Dr. Bronners? His carefully nuanced academic answers just didn't cut it.

That got him to thinking, and GoodGuide was born.

What originally started life as a UC Berkeley project quickly became something quite different. At first, GoodGuide got funding from the Wallace Global Fund, Overbrook Foundation, the National Collegiate Investors Association, the Ford Foundation and others. But when he went back for a second funding round -- pitching spiffy new functions like the cell phone and iPhone browsing application -- he was rebuffed.

"They said we love it so much that we don't want to fund it. We want you to spin it off campus," recounted a smiling O'Rourke. "They pushed me off a cliff to make this more real."

GoodGuide became a "for benefit" start up -- a business model where the shareholders and beneficiaries are the public at large. It also moved to downtown San Francisco, allowing the start-up to be taken seriously by venture capitalists, who then coughed up $3.73 million. Investors are not the only ones to take note. GoodGuide has won prestigious awards, including a 2008 Crunchie for Web site "Most Likely To Make The World A Better Place" and a Web 2.0 Summit Launchpad award.

Of course, initial funding does not a business plan make. The current strategic plan remains a trifle fuzzy, particularly given the self-imposed restrictions GoodGuide puts on itself.

As only an academic could put it, O'Rourke says, "We are not really focused on revenue. We hope to hire someone soon." That new hire will have his or her work cut out for him/her. O'Rourke does not want to endorse particular products, have advertising on the site (specifically, no dancing mortgage brokers) or engage in marketing. One possibility is to license the GoodGuide data to large institutions and retailers for a fee, leaving public access free.

Given that large corporations assessed by the site have already complained to/contacted GoodGuide about their ratings, the retail licensing idea might have some legs for companies desirous of pre-emptively protecting their brand. O'Rourke remains coy about which companies have been in touch, but notes they could generally improve their score simply by being more transparent about what is in their products.

A GoodGuide, Now More Than Ever

It is a well-known fact that labeling a product green or organic these days is a selling point. It is also a well-known fact that as some corporations are making a genuine effort to change their practices, others are greenwashing. That makes it all the more essential to have accurate information, particularly as the organic health food sector consolidates rapidly.

Horizon milk is owned by Dean Foods, a company that has gotten flak for not pasturing its cows, something Horizon once took pride in doing. "They ship milk from five different factory farms," charges Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopiaco-founder, co-director and senior farm policy analyst. "They are discounting prices. They are putting the real organic farmers out of business."

That is just one example of the information available. "People are hungry for this information, they are ready to change their buying based on this information," says GoodGuide's front-end software designer Joel Lewenstein. "Right now it is hard to get, it is either expensive, not easily accessible or hard to understand." Lewenstein wants GoodGuide to impose a "tyranny of transparency" on companies. "Once consumers have the information, they can shop the way they want to."

This is not to say consumer shopping patterns can change the world. "We don't think you can shop your way to sustainability, justice and ethical behavior," says O'Rourke. Shopping is, however, one lever that can help change corporate behavior.

Smart companies recognize "greater transparency" is becoming a reality, and GoodGuide can help nudge them in that direction, be it around food products, children's toys, household chemicals or skin products.

For smart consumers, the GoodGuide.com is a great information source. O'Rourke acknowledges there are numerous other ethical shopping sites, but says, "We are aggregating all these issues in one place. You could take 12 hours and click to 50 different sites ... we have turned a massive research project into a one-click guide to find a good product."

Tim Kingston is a freelance investigative reporter in Oakland, Calif.
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