Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Milk doesn't come from a grocery store, it comes from a dairy!

Food has always been a passion of mine, and is an important substance to the fabric of life on Earth. As humans, we eat because we need to eat; we need minerals, vitamins, calories, H2O, etc. in order to survive. But worrying about surviving is so Medieval-times.

Fast forward to today - we don't worry about survival, we worry about what we are having for dinner tonight. We can purchase whatever food we want, buy it at whatever store we want, and at the very low cost compared to farming and raising our own food for months at a time. Our modern grocery store has hidden the fact that food is labor intensive and as a result, we have lost touch with the reality that food has to come from somewhere.

Our food is starting to incorporate its origins into the labeling: "Product of Mexico". I don't know about you, but Mexico just makes me think about Mayan ruins, Cancun beaches, tacos, and tequila. It's nice to know that this product isn't American made, but what exactly does it mean to be a product of Mexico?

And so comes the better question, why should I care? As our culture started to advance, simple tasks became industrialized and farming became something that we rely on farmers to do. Along came companies to sell food to the people, and pretty soon food became highly profitable; it is after all something that every human being needs to survive. When industry mixes with money which mixes with food, you get some disgusting results (see The Jungle). As a result, we have federal agencies that have been put into place to set standards for all the food we consume, so we end up again trusting our government to protect us from harm. Since food is plentiful and restaurants are a-many, it's pretty hard to enforce standard regulations all over the United States.

So what ends up happening? Mistakes are made, food is littered with chemicals, and profits soar when every ingredient is replaced with a cheaper ingredient (like high fructose corn syrup). Think about all of the recent food scares, recalls, illnesses and deaths attributed to food. Swine flu, tomato and spinach recalls, mad cow disease, and the recent massive egg recall - its dangerous not knowing where our food comes from! By knowing exactly where your products are from, you get to make an informed decision on the products you purchase.

So now comes the fun part! I stumbled upon the FDA's very cryptic way of providing information about dairies in the United States. Go get a few dairy products from the fridge and take a look with me. Here is one from my fridge, my favorite organic yogurt Stonyfield!

The FDA has devised a system of "plant codes" to determine the origins of our dairy products. The first number represents a state and the second number represents a dairy. You have to dig through the FDA's complicated website to find out exactly what this deciphers to, which ends up being a single record in a sea of thousands. Here is another example of a similar Stonyfield product from the same dairy:

Most dairy products use this printed style of code, so look for one of these first! Keep in mind that there will always be a date and time in the printed code, meaning that "SEP 07 10 11:49" is all purely time related. So for these two examples, I find out that "33" is the state code for New Hampshire and "14" is a Stonyfield dairy located in Londonberry. Sometimes you may have to look around a little harder, like I found this code on my butter packaging:

Every product will have a code and if it doesn't, try looking again or getting someone else to take a look since you might just be missing it. If there is no code listed, the product you are looking at is not regulated by the FDA. If you are buying some fresh milk, cheeses, or yogurt at a farmers market, try to get to know the owner before buying. But if you standing in the middle of the dairy aisle at a grocery store, the product is probably too risky to purchase since its source is unknown and unregulated.

After learning about these products codes, I decided to put my skills to use for a good cause and developed a free iPhone® app I call "Dairy Ping". It allows you to locate a dairy by searching off the plant code on your product so you can learn about the origins of the food you buy. I hope that by knowing more about your food, you can make informed decisions on what you buy for you and your family. Hopefully with enough informed decisions and purchases, we can shape the food industry by placing demand on local, natural, and safe food.

Stay tuned for more information about Dairy Ping being released on the iTunes App Store!


  1. Very Cool...when will there be an Android version?

    1. Thanks for the interest!

      I'm sorry to report that the Android version will be released later down the road due to limited resources. Here is my current roadmap:

      iPad (expected release mid-May)
      WP7 (expected release mid-June)
      Android (expected release mid-July)

      Stay tuned!