The key to protecting food provenance, just like provenance in, say, antiquities or rare documents, lies in the chain of custody. At its core, IPP is about stringent and copious record-keeping and reliable product-handling systems, but it also is made possible by a number of new technologies. Bar-coding, for example, has not only accelerated distribution processes, it has also made them much more precise. Radio-frequency identification tagging is also a recent development that makes it possible for commodities to ship with what amounts to an encyclopedic packing slip. Together with specialized supply-chain software, document management, and certification systems, these technologies record and store the crucial facts about the food’s origins and identity.
Again, kosher foods provide the basic model; kosher meat is one of the oldest examples of food-related identity preservation. For beef, lamb, or poultry to be certified kosher, the butchering process must be overseen by an independent inspector in the slaughterhouse. Casual observers might believe that it is merely a matter of having a rabbi stand by and ritually wave his hands over the process, but the tradition includes security measures all along the distribution line. In order to ensure that the food is actually kosher, a concrete system of inspection, verification, and tracking is used. According to Rabbi Seth Mandel, chief of the meat inspection division at the Orthodox Union of New York, less than half of the animals inspected are declared kosher. If everything is done in accordance with Levitical rules, the inspector affixes unique, numbered tags, which he keeps stored under lock and key, to the animal’s carcass, liver, sweetbreads, and so forth. The kosher tags stay with the meat all the way to the deli case.
There are several hundred organizations worldwide that certify kosher goods. Some of the most well known include the Orthodox Union, the Organized Kashrus Laboratories, and Kosher Supervision of America. Smaller agencies often operate locally or regionally in the supply chain. Each agency has its own distinctive heksher which indicates a product’s ingredients and preparation process are kosher.
Probably less than two percent of coffee produced globally qualifies as Fair Trade, says Scott Patterson of Peace Coffee in Minneapolis. Fair Trade is a distinction that proves to socially aware consumers that the coffee was produced in a manner that provides growers and pickers a fair wage for their labor. To qualify, the coffee must originate in local cooperatives and be inspected and verified by a representative of the body that sets the standards for Fair Trade. Beans so designated often go direct from growing co-op to roaster, and always with an information trail that can be audited.
Some labels are more valuable than others. Consumers Union keeps tabs on the value and veracity of more than one hundred and thirty labels and certifications, ranging from the very specific and valuable “USDA Organic” and “Rainforest Alliance” tags to the “Cruelty-Free” and “Environmentally Preferable” appellations that are not independently verified and so signify little. (The mother of all of these empty certifications is, of course, “All-Natural.”) There are IPP product labels that denote the organic production of foods, the social sustainability of the way in which it was produced, the welfare of the animal from which it came, and even—in the case of biodynamics—quasi-religious rituals of production. The point is not so much what producers want to claim about their foods; it is about establishing a method for third-party verification to back up whatever those producers choose to claim. IPP, then, is a way to enforce truth in advertising, to protect both consumers and producers from false claims or meaningless standards.