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Barcode scanners tell us what a food product is supposed to be. A new handheld scanner will tell us what a product actually is.

Most Americans aren't aware of just how much the experience of shopping for groceries has changed over the last century, or how it has been transformed from an intensely personal to an almost completely impersonal experience.

In my mother's early life, going to grocery store consisted of standing at a counter. You handed the grocer a list of what you wanted. The grocer then went behind the counter and brought back a basket of the groceries you requested, plus a few items he or she thought you might buy that would earn the store a few more pennies, or maybe some token of appreciation for your business. Grocery stores customarily gave good customers a sterling silver spoon for feeding when a new child was born (my brother and I got silver spoons even in the 1950's), for instance. Stores did not give customers who were behind on their accounts (you usually could get groceries on credit, even before there were credit cards) the silver spoons, hence the expression "born with a silver spoon in his mouth." Then you would visit the butcher, who had meat displayed on an open counter, with or without a sneeze guard, who might or might not give you the good piece (and then would find a way to adjust the price)and the greengrocer, who had mounds of vegetables and fruit through which you could rummage in hopes of finding something not spoiled.

By the time I came along, after World War II, you strolled through aisles of grocery items and produce, although you still had to negotiate with the butcher to get the piece of meat you wanted. (This was true until about 1970 in much of the United States. There are still stores in isolated areas that use this system.) Nobody wondered whether beef and chicken would contain Escherichia coli. You knew they did and cooked them thoroughly. By the 1950's, there were signs in the aisles telling you the prices, but the clerk had to remember the price of every item in the store. Then stores started using paper stickers to mark prices. The clerk only had to read the prices on the stickers and calculate the total on the cash register. Then stores started using bar codes.

Bar codes made it possible to scan prices and calculate the total electronically. However, bar codes took away an important element of shopping. One hundred years ago, both you and the grocer were keenly aware of the quality and identify of your food. Your grocer might be trying to fool you about "additives" such as sawdust and rat hairs, but you certainly didn't have to worry about strange chemicals in your food. We now have much better food safety with regard to things like filth and insects, but with the advent of bar codes, the average market now carries 42,000 different products, and no one, not even the managers, will know when all the items arrived, how long they have been on the shelf, or whether they are really high quality. However, new technology may be about to bring us to the level of knowledge grocers and customers had in 1916. A new hand-held scanner will tell its users what is actually in an item, not just what the bar code says is in the item.

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