Informated Food, Part 1

Informated Food

Maria Bonn and Michael Twidale

Introduction

Meals and storytelling have always been interconnected. This concept piece revolves around the stories of the meal itself: What are the ingredients?; How were they obtained and combined?; In particular, who and where do they come from? There may be a story the cook tells to her guests whether friends, family, or customers in a restaurant, or there may just be a story that she tells herself about the decisions she made about what to buy and what to do with it. Increasingly, growers and producers also tell origin stories about how they came to the food and how the food came to be. 

The food we buy and consume always bears with it such stories. Increasingly, we can see that information is explicitly and purposefully  “attached” or associated with a food item. We call this very broad idea of information that is connected to food “informated food.” This attachment to and expression of information to food is widespread and has actually been around for a very long time. It’s hard to imagine a home cook of any era passing on a recipe without some explanation of the origin and purpose of that recipe. The headnote adding information to a recipe became a standard of post WWII cookbooks and later of internet recipes. More technically, perhaps more dryly, in the United States, ingredient lists have appeared on food packaging since the beginning of the twentieth century. The now ubiquitous “sell by” or “best by” date has been attributed to Marks and Spencer in the mid-1950s, and in the latter part of the twentieth century, more fully developed nutritional labelling begins to appear. As the new millennia began and concerns about climate change and carbon footprints grew, there was increasing interest in another kind of information, the distance a food had travelled to reach the consumer. The term “food miles” was coined by Tim Lang at the Centre for Food Policy at the University of London, with the notion that consumers “might like to judge their food, not just by price or what it looked like, but also by its food miles, how far it had travelled (Lang, 2006 p1).

—We call this very broad idea of information that is connected to food “informated food.”—

Food information now has particular manifestations, using networked communication and other digital technologies, that have important implications for helping modern consumers to connect with the origins and sources of their food. Here, we share a range of different examples of informated food and then consider how the concept might be used in multidisciplinary research to better understand current uses and to assist in development of future applications for a multiplicity of benefits: for the environment, for improved health, and for the economy.

Mapping the Route from Farm to Table

We see the network-enabled connection of farmers, food, and communities in action from rural communities to industrial supermarkets.  As Community Supported Agriculture became widespread in parallel with the rise of public access to the internet and the networked communication that it affords, farmers, eager to grow their customer base, saw the potential in moving beyond hand-lettered signs and photocopied fliers and launched chatty, information-filled email newsletters and increasingly robust web sites, detailing everything from the births of new livestock to the impact of frost on the crops expected at the market that week.

Although we tend to envision farm technology as tractors and seed spreaders rather than social media, in fact many growers seem quite adept at keeping pace with technologies for communicating information. A recent farmers market stall featured pea tendrils and other microgreens, packaged in plastic with a QR code. The code brings us to “thefarmerandco.com” and more directly to that grower’s section of “meet the farmers” where we learn that “Living Water Farms, owned and operated by the Kilgus/Schneider families, is a small sustainable family farm located in the heart of Illinois farmland, focused on growing the highest quality specialty greens and microgreens year round for top chefs, select distributors, and local retail throughout the Midwest.”

It is one of the happy paradoxes of online life that technologies enabling remote communication can bring us closer, leading to a greater degree of social connection. Informated food is no exception. Social media and other forms of information technology add a personal touch to the provision of food, one that consumers value, both emotionally and economically. Beyond the world of small producers, big business is eager to exploit this value and looks to the small to inform the big. For instance, Harvest Market, an Illinois-based supermarket that looks very much like large supermarkets everywhere, with long aisles filled with mass-produced goods and store brands, is intent on amplifying local connections and is signposted throughout its departments with information about the local stories and people behind its products. On its Web site it is explicit about its intent and the possible economic benefits:

Why are we doing this?

We need to show to customers that we care about farmers and that we have a belief system at Harvest Market. We want to give farmers a voice, and let them speak inside the store experience. And we want to continually build relationships with farmers, producers and manufacturers, which will then lead to more connections and a bigger network of suppliers.

What are we hoping to accomplish?

It’s not enough to just put the products out and hope that customers will understand. We need to find innovative ways to tell the story of each product, in order to help engage customers. We want to build relationships with consumers, and create a reputation for the Harvest Market brand as a trustworthy editor.

Provenance Information

Both mass-produced packaged goods and stalls at a farmers market may include information about where the food came from and some details about how it came to be prepared. We group all this information as “provenance information.” The various kinds of provenance information often address the standard journalism questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how. A quick consideration helps us to see the various kinds and combinations of information we may see across all scales of production and detail. Provenance information might be a declaration or certification of being organically farmed, or exactly where all the ingredients came from, or even who did the preparation. For eggs, meat, and dairy products, there may be information about how the animals were cared for in contrast to factory farming. There may be other kinds of quality information, such as special food control accreditations (appellation contrôlée, soil association, etc.) and prizes won by the product.

Prestige foodstuffs have a long history of being informated with provenance information, wine being perhaps the most obvious example. But we see similar provenance information for cheese, olive oil, chocolate, manuka honey and a growing number of other products. As the news outlet Politico, reporting upon scandalous Parma ham counterfeiting in 2017, tells us, “Brussels has an entire unit dedicated to these protections for sacrosanct, storied foodstuffs ranging from Cognac to Roquefort cheese. The delicacies must be produced in a specific locale, often using artisanal know-how gleaned over centuries.”

Turning to questions of provenance immediately makes clear an alliance of interests of food productions and information. Understanding and documenting provenance has long been central to the work of archivists and to the schools of Library and Information Science where many of those archivists are trained. What we suggest here is that it is only one of many areas in which the interests and expertise of information researchers is ideally suited to articulate research questions, lead efforts to address those questions, and suggest applications and future directions with potential personal, social, and economic benefit for all of us who participate in the production and consumption of food. All of us. In the second part of this concept piece, we will suggest many future directions for work in realizing those benefits.

References for Part 1

Eveleth, Rose. “Sell By” And “Best By” Dates on Food Are Basically Made Up—But Hard to Get Rid Of. Smithsonian Magazine. March  28, 2014.

Lang, Tim & John Iriving. Food Miles. translated and published in edited form as: ‘Locale / globale (food miles)’, Slow Food (Bra, Cuneo Italy), 19, May 2006, p. 94-97. Expanded from: Tim Lang & Michael Heasman (2004), Food Wars: the global battle for mouths, minds and markets, London: Earthscan. https://www.city.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/167893/Slow-Food-fd-miles-final-16-02-06.pdf

Marks, Simon & Paravacini, Giula (2017). Parma ham probe shakes confidence in EU gourmet labels. Politico. June 8, 2017. https://www.politico.eu/article/parma-ham-probe-shakes-confidence-in-eu-gourmet-labels/

Notaker, Henry. A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page over Seven Centuries. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017. Accessed July 7, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1rv6298.

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