LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Peter and Nance are a couple out to dinner on the television show "Portlandia." They think they'd like to get the chicken. But first, they have a few questions.
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CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: (As Nance) Is that USDA organic or Oregon organic or Portland organic?
DANA MILLICAN: (As server) It's just all across the board organic.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The server pulls out a file with a detailed bio and a photo attached.
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MILLICAN: (As server) So here is the chicken you'll be enjoying tonight.
FRED ARMISEN: (As Peter) You have this - this is fantastic.
MILLICAN: (As server) Absolutely. His name was Colin. Here are his papers, OK?
ARMISEN: (As Peter) That's great. He looks like a happy, little...
BROWNSTEIN: (As Nance) Yeah.
ARMISEN: (As Peter) ...Guy who runs around - a lot of friends, other chickens as friends - putting his little wing around another one and kind of like...
MILLICAN: (As server) You know...
ARMISEN: (As Peter) ...Pal-ing around.
MILLICAN: (As server) I don't know that I can speak to that level of intimate knowledge about him.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: New technology promises to do just that with trackers affixed to the leg of your future dinner. It's part of a growing trend to know where your food comes from. Robyn Metcalfe is a food historian at the University of Texas at Austin.
ROBYN METCALFE: Thank you - glad to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So this is real. A Chinese company has developed a tracking device for chickens. Tell us how it works.
METCALFE: Oh, gosh. Imagine a chicken with a sort of leg band strapped on with a GPS tracker. Every move of that chicken is being tracked so that people who, potentially, will buy that chicken will know every step that that chicken has taken.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's really happening. This is already a thing.
METCALFE: It's a thing, although I - really is sort of a test bed in China. Only one company has really come out and talked about this kind of thing. So proof of concept in the company that's doing it is an insurance company. So, obviously, they're trying to look at technology for ways to lower risk. And this might be one of those ways. Who knows?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you're saying lower risk, what do you mean?
METCALFE: Well, if you really wanted to make sure that a chicken is being sold for what it actually is - let's say free range. You want to know what's really free ranging. You don't want to get your company open to litigation from someone who thought they had a walk-about chicken and, actually, it wasn't. So there's that. And also, food safety issues come up in terms of tracking animals around the farms these days.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you mean by food safety issues?
METCALFE: The whole idea of using this technology for tracking food through the supply chain is of real interest to companies who want to validate the safety of food going through the food system. So if you have a foodborne illness breakout, like we just saw with romaine lettuce or raw turkey meat, you can use this technology moving through the supply chain to really be much more responsive about where it happened, why it happened, to recall and fix these problems.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's interesting when you say lose because some segments of agriculture, especially those that raise animals on an industrial scale, have not exactly been eager to let the public see what happens on their farms. Why would they embrace this?
METCALFE: Well, it's not a slam dunk. I mean, there's this whole sort of open-data movement, the collaboration of how we're going to use all of this data to improve all kinds of systems not to mention the food system. But the food industry is quite vulnerable. I mean, on one hand, how you move food through your own supply chain is, in effect, your intellectual property. And so you may not be all that willing to, say, sign up to some of this new technology, like, you know, upload everything that's going on in your barn and your farm or in your food-processing facility. So that's one reason to be hesitant.
The other is on the one hand, we want everyone to be, you know, visible and open and share this data. But also, our food system could be open for hacking or, you know, security risks or even terrorism. This is a negotiation that we're all having to make - the choice between how open, how trusting and then also how safe we want our food system to be. So I am a, you know, technology optimist. I see it's coming. It's already here. But how do we navigate through this sort of tension between open and sharing and safe and trusted? It'll be really interesting to watch.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Robyn Metcalfe is the author of "Food Routes: Growing Bananas In Iceland And Other Tales From The Logistics Of Eating," which comes out next month. Thank you so much.
METCALFE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF WASHED OUT'S "FEEL IT ALL AROUND")
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