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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.

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