Urban farm Square Roots has unveiled what they call a transparency timeline, accessed via QR code on their packaging.
( Square Roots )

An indoor farm in Brooklyn, N.Y., wants to do its part to restore consumer confidence in greens.

Urban farm Square Roots has unveiled a new food packaging system that the company says will give consumers a comprehensive story of how the firm’s basil, sage, chives, and mint traveled from seed to the retail shelf.

In a Dec. 19 blog post by co-founder Kimbal Musk (younger brother of Elon Musk) headlined “After the Romaine recall nightmare, here’s how Square Roots is going to get Americans to trust their food again," the company said it was introducing a labeling program that would allow consumers to see “the complete story of where and how their food was grown, and who grew it, with a simple #knowyourfarmer scan.”

“By simply scanning a QR code or typing in the lot number found on every package of Square Roots fresh produce, you are now able to see the complete story of where and how your food was grown and who grew it — tracing the entire path from seed-to-store,” Musk said in the blog post.

The QR code scan — readable by most smartphone cameras — informs consumers of what Musk called the “transparency timeline” for the commodity. The timeline includes information about the crop’s development, including:

  • Seeding: the scan tells where the seeds were sourced from, when and where they were seeded and the first name of the worker who seeded the commodity;
  • Nursery: The date the commodity was placed in the company’s climate-controlled nursery in the specified farm and the first name of the individual that transferred the tray;
  • Transplant: The date the seedlings were moved from the nursery to the hydroponic grow towers i in the specified farm, and the name of the worker who moved them;
  • Harvest: The date the herb commodity was hand-harvested and the first name of the worker that harvested it; 
  • Packing: Date of packing and first name of the worker who packed it; and 
  • Delivery: Date of delivery to retail store, with a note that delivery was done with “low impact transport.”

Musk said future versions of the transparency timeline could add information about the specific climate that food was grown in, recycling information relevant to the packaging for the product and perhaps other data. “If you would like see any other information added to the timeline, just let us know,” he said in the post.

With recent the recent E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce — the third outbreak in two years — Musk said that consumers are at risk from foodborne illnesses.

“The situation was compounded by opaque supply chains in the Industrial Food System, making it ridiculously difficult to accurately trace the source of guilty pathogens,” he said in the blog post. “To their credit, the big lettuce producers did eventually react, and agreed to start labeling their products with a mark of the state in which their products are grown. But that’s not enough. Consumers demand — and deserve — to know more.”

Musk said that indoor climate-controlled farming “has many advantages” over open field growing when it comes to minimizing the risk of such outbreaks. He said that Square Roots’ distributed, modular farm network reduces that risk even further.

“Square Roots customers can enjoy our products not just because they taste great and are grown hyper-locally, but also because they come with the comfort and confidence of being able to see exactly how and where your food was grown and who grew it,” he said.

Musk said blockchain technology has created buzz but so far hasn’t delivered much information to consumers.

“We’re optimistic on that long-term vision (of blockchain), and we know many of the people working hard on blockchain solutions right now,” he said in the post. “But the reality is that initial implementations, while heavily buzzword-compliant, have been distinctly underwhelming in terms of the information they provide.”