It started with chocolate, then moved on to coffee: single origin is all the rage. But apart from hipster cred, why should consumers care about whether their food comes from a single place, and whether or not you can trace it back to its origin? Well, as global supply chains grow more Byzantine and murky, and food production is increasingly industrialised, recent food scares around the world have spotlighted the disconnection between consumers and their food. Increasingly, the food supply chain is a black box, with raw ingredients entering at one end and the final cling-wrapped product popping out at the other. Even those involved in the process can be unclear about what happens in between.

The investigation of the 2013 horse meat scandal in Europe starkly illustrates this. Horse meat made its way onto British supermarket shelves in the form of lasagne, burgers, sausages and other processed foods. It wasn’t listed as an ingredient and when it was discovered, there was a massive outcry from the non-horse meat eating nation. A lengthy investigation revealed a cat’s cradle of middlemen in several countries across Europe. In one instance, the supply chain to get frozen lasagne onto shelves in the UK involved six countries and seven layers of middlemen, excluding the supermarket.

Closer to home, I’ve been warned about checking the true source of grass-fed beef: the cattle might spend a few weeks fattening up on a feedlot before being slaughtered, nullifying the claim to being ‘free-range’ and ‘grass-fed’.

With supply chains this muddy, is it any surprise then that we, as consumers, have become disassociated with where our food comes from? Although the European horse meat scandal is an extreme example, any lack of transparency has a number of implications for us, from the ability for companies to recall food in the event of contamination, to us being able to confidently choose food based on health, religious or other grounds. Hugh Tyrrell, a Cape Town-based sustainability expert and director of Green Edge, says today’s attention on traceability and single origin food is thanks to a perfect storm of influences. These include the rise of environmental awareness over the past few decades; social media driving increased transparency from businesses; food scares; the popularity of healthy living and eating organic food; millennials’ awareness of the impact of globalisation and industrialisation, and wanting to improve people’s lives and the environment; and even the rise of the celebrity chef, and their focus on the source of their ingredients. The culmination, he says, is the farmers’ market. This is ironically something our grandparents wouldn’t find unusual at all. Here consumers can get better-tasting food, meet the farmers, and buy locally-produced food with its lower carbon footprint.

“Not all products are made equal,” says Robyn Smith, founder and director of Faithful to Nature, an online organic and natural store. “So if a consumer is concerned about getting the best value in terms of ethics and safety, then the first place to start is origin, certification and the consequent traceability.

“We need to know that agriculture, food production and supply is not always well regulated. We also need to know that our safety as the consumer is very seldom what motivates efforts in ‘seed to table’. Rather, cost-efficiency is the forefront of all decision making in the supply chain. If we don’t care enough to ask the right questions, we cannot assume that anyone else is doing this on our behalf.”

Smith suggests starting with the following questions: Where was this grown? How was it grown? What certifications back up any safety claims? As well as food safety, knowing where our food comes from allows us to spend our money in ways that support sustainability, animal welfare and workers’ rights.

It’s worth pointing out that traceability doesn’t only rely on a product being of single origin. But it does appear that those obsessed with single origin food tend to know exactly where their ingredients come from. Here are some interesting companies foregrounding single origin and traceability, and their drivers for doing so.

Abagold

Traceability is paramount when dealing with highly regulated foods, such as abalone, also known as ‘perlemoen’. As well as establishing legality and authenticity, the company’s trace code is also a mark of quality and sustainability. When you’re paying between R500 and R800 for a can of abalone, you want to be sure it’s the real deal.

Fair Cape Dairies

In addition to Fair Cape-branded milk coming from the cows on a single farm, the dairy can also track each of its herd of 3,800 cows — around 1,700 of which are being milked – at any time. Each cow has a tag attached to its leg, which measures footsteps taken and allows weight, milk production and the conductivity of the milk to be recorded for individual cows. So, for example, a change in milk conductivity can flag an impending illness, allowing the milk to be removed from the supply and the cow to be treated immediately. This avoids treatment with antibiotics as a matter of course, and avoids antibiotics entering the milk supply.

Sernick Group

Setting up South African cattle breed Bonsmara as a mark of excellence, akin to Wagyu beef, means traceability and authenticity is vital. Sernick solves this by controlling the entire food chain, from animals to retail, in order tell the story of the brand’s quality.

Rosetta Roastery

As well as ensuring a consistently high quality coffee, and matching the coffee roasting process with the characteristic of the beans, Rosetta’s Rob Cowles also sees value in the feedback they give to the coffee farmers, typically located in far-flung regions around the world. “Producers can be assisted in numerous ways: with advice on better and sustainable farming practices, provision of financing, investment in better processing equipment, and social upliftment.”

Woodstock Mint

After having to explain to someone that fruit and vegetables start out as a flower, Woodstock resident Andrew Macfarlane ramped up his hydroponics hobby to a full-blown micro-farm. He wants to show that you can make up to R1,000 of profit monthly by supplying crops such as herbs and lettuce varieties to local companies from an urban backyard. Delivering fresh produce the day it is picked, plus a minute carbon footprint by keeping things hyper-local, are his drivers for the project, which is still in its infant shoes.

A Caveat

As with many things, it is seldom a good idea to view something as a silver bullet. One of the Sustainability Institute’s researchers, Candice Kelly, warns that, just like ‘free-range’, there are no regulations in South Africa that define what single origin means. “A very complex issue can be greatly simplified by having closer relationships with the suppliers of your food. Ask the person or company selling the product what they mean by ‘single origin’ and why they feel this is important,” she says. “There are many competing factors to consider when deciding what to eat and what is important to help you navigate the many choices you face. Are you more concerned about the environment, your health, and job security of the farm workers? Find suppliers who deal with these concerns and are transparent about how they source and produce the food you buy.”

NB: In print, pdf and digital sales platforms version, the surname for Rob Cowles appears in error as Rob Conway. Correction has been made only to this web version. Ed.