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Labun: Chicken Facial Recognition

Facial recognition technology for chickens is not a completely ridiculous idea.

Okay, it is a completely ridiculous idea - but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad one.

It’s happening in China, where the GoGo Chicken project pairs facial recognition with GPS bracelets for chicken monitoring. They’ll open this monitoring to consumers through blockchain, a form of open ledger book, to let customers follow each step in the life of their chicken - up to and including visiting chickens on the farm. It’s agritourism taken to an extreme. It’s also a response to consumer interest in sustainable and healthful food production - an interest that’s growing, fed by scandals related to adulterated or contaminated foods.

China’s GoGo Chicken project touches on an element of food system transparency that’s relevant across markets. Different people want transparency for different reasons and all of them with increasing urgency - whether they care most about animal welfare, or chemicals their food may have been exposed to, or allergens it might have crossed paths with, or whether they’re potential chicken tourists who are just really into the story of their dinner.

Here in the U.S. we’re handling these demands imperfectly - through an onslaught of verified labels, unverified marketing claims, frustrating attempts by regulators to sort out which demands have top priority for limited resources, and lawsuits.

Last month, the FDA announced it would create a way to release names of retailers stocking food items recalled for serious safety concerns. But that’s a far cry from being able to tell a consumer what their chicken ate for its last meal.

And just as the concerns behind the Chinese chicken experiment aren’t entirely unfamiliar, the technology isn’t either. Cargill recently announced it would use facial recognition for cows as part of better herd health management; blockchain for supply chains is already a popular concept being tried by global giants like WalMart.

This all suggests that the type of technology used for precision management in the mega-industrial farms - long known for extreme secrecy - may now be redirected towards extreme transparency. It could transform what we demand from national food producers, which would be good. It could be a technology sea change that leaves small farms behind in the field where they thought they’d always have an upper hand, transparency and trust. And that would be bad.

We don’t know how it will turn out, only that this is a change worth paying attention to.

Helen Labun has worked in Vermont nonprofits addressing issues in rural economic development. Today, she is Executive Director of the Vermont Fresh Network, connecting chefs to Vermont farmers in support of the local food economy.
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