The Czech food rating app Foodgroot aims to “disrupt” the industry by giving consumers the power to evaluate every product on the grocery store shelf with the touch of a button. At the most basic level, this means the quality to cost ratio – whether it’s worth paying more for a certain brand. Down the road, Foodgroot founder and CEO Petr Václavek says, the app will rate products on over 70 parameters, from their organic make-up, eco footprint, and impact on food security – even to what kind of grass milk cows are eating.
“So, the project is called Foodgroot, and if I should describe it in one sentence, it would be that what Google did to the internet, we’re doing for the food market – for all information that is available for foodstuffs on the market.”
“If I gave you six different yoghurts, put them in front of you, you would probably be under the impression that you could sort them according to quality or to how healthy they are. But if I told you that you only know a maximum of 20 percent of the available information, then you will see how you are influenced in fact by marketing, by PR, people’s opinions – it’s not based on real information.”
“But what’s behind it, and the deeper you go, the more secrets you find out and more sort of correlated links. And someone needs to basically disrupt it, first of all. By ‘disruption’ I mean totally let the light in.”
“Food is a basic, essential part of our lives, and we should know [what’s in it] – right? Today, if I give you a product, put some special name on it, give it new packaging, do some extra promotion, and you’ll think it is super quality stuff. In fact, you will find it is ordinary stuff, and you’re paying an extra 30 or 40 percent just because of the marketing.”
“So what we are bringing is we took all the information that his available at the moment … We are working with experts from universities and different institutions and together we are working on a collaborative platform that will actually index the whole market and put them in a certain hierarchy [ranking], a certain range.”
And how did the project get started? What was the impetus for it? Was there a certain product – and maybe you don’t want to name names – some comparison that led to outrage or inspiration?
“My inspiration as a founder – actually, it’s funny, because I’m not a food freak. You know, someone really looking into what’s healthy stuff. My original inspiration and trigger is that I always put together things, existing points, and put them together into a new form that brings something extra.”
Originally from Prague, Petr Václavek has lived in several major European cities – London Amsterdam, Gothenburg and Basel – working on both local and global marketing projects, as well as tech start-ups. He recently came into the Czech public eye for his work on the grassroots campaigns of Marek Hilšer, a young doctor who lost a bid for the presidency last year but won a seat in the Senate this autumn.
While not a programmer himself, Mr Václavek understands the power of Big Data well, and with Foodgroot will draw on vast amounts of information on food producers and raw material suppliers, quantifying and evaluating much you won’t find in the small print on labels – such as a product’s eco footprint. All of that will go into Foodgroot’s complex Food Rating Index being developed in cooperation with the 3rd Medical Faculty of Charles University in Prague.
“The project is actually divided into four phases. Phase 1 is we come with a global Food Rating Index – we’ll be indexing each market in Europe first, then we’ll go to the U.S., to India, to China. Basically, we need to know the ingredients and the product bar code and a centralised database in terms of nutrition, how the producers make it, what additives are in it, etc. For the basic index, this is enough.”
“Later on, we will be taking into consideration more and more parameters, up to 70, so things like eco print, the peace index, the palm oil tree crisis – you name it; there are actually a limitless number of issues that are somehow connected with the food production these days.”
“So, step by step, we will be uncovering, going deeper and deeper into understanding how things are actually made, and how these should be noted in the number, in the final rating that you are receiving. So, the number will be getting more and more accurate as we get more and more data different sources in the future.”
As you say, it’s now in the Beta stage, and you’re looking for a roll-out in January.
Roughly how many people are testers now, collecting this information, as far as the crowdsourcing?
“Over the past six months, we’ve just been learning how to read the various databases and translate them into the technology, and basically how to make the formula so that a simple number comes out of it that tells you exactly what it’s all about.”
“We have a functional prototype, which is on my mobile phone, which can easily scan any bar code related to food and it will show you the number. Obviously, this is the front end, the application that you see; in the meantime, our technology people are working on the back end, which means databases and the final tweaking of the formula, together with the experts, so that the numbers come out bearing the information that the consumer needs to know.”
“Actually, we are going to do the same for pet food later on and for cosmetics. The principles are pretty much the same. And I think that cosmetics, actually, along with food, is one of the biggest businesses that has not been ‘disrupted’ yet. People pretty much rely on brands, and don’t know what’s really behind it. So, that’s in the next stage.”
“And what is also very nice – I like it very much – is we will also come with a new ratio, because today, there are lots of price comparison sites, but nobody compares it with the quality, the overall rating. So we will come out with a new ratio that says, ‘Okay, for this price, this quality is a great ratio, actually.’ Although the quality might be crappy and the price might be low, you understand.”
“But in some cases, we’ll find out that it’s a scam, actually, because the quality is very low, or the rating very low, but the price is very high. So, we will even come with a new paradigm for the consumers that will compare actual ‘performance’ with the price.”
On the European level, this is interesting especially for Czech and other consumers to the east of Brussels, because often we find a product with the exact same name, exact same look but different quality from country to country – which has made Czech consumers and politicians quite angry.
“Actually, we want to bring this app to the EU, to introduce it to the EU Commissioners who are in charge of what they call ‘double quality’ of food because the same brand produced in let’s say Germany, they say, is of much better quality than the same brand produced, as you say, in the Central European markets. And we want to have this app as an independent tool even for the EU Commissioners, EU people – basically, scanning the two codes and immediately you find out if it’s true or not, and you will see objective information; you will see the details and find out exactly what’s wrong with it.”
So, in the very initial stages, you will get, as you say, a ‘value’ rating. And later on – I can see on your site the heading ‘tailor-made food’ – so, for example, someone who is particularly concerned about Fair Trade, or eating organic products, can set filters.
“Exactly. Everything health related. If, for example, you are lactose intolerant, you can put that information in and immediately you get an offer that is right for you, basically. So you can do tests that help you shape your lifestyle profile. And we want to come with a deal – we’re already negotiating with several e-commerce food services, where we want to do tailored stuff.”
“In other words, you can do shopping for your family and there will be a bag with your name on it that will contain only stuff which is good for you – if I can put it that simply. And that’s not only about food but supplements, everything related to health, basically, and a healthy lifestyle.”
And, again, this will be free for consumers – you’ll monetize it in a different way.
How do you expect to make money?
“This will stay free of any kind of advertising and marketing forever. Absolutely. Because this has to become a clear, independent, absolutely trustworthy, transparent, from Day Zero. So, we’ll be having a series of what we call ‘in-app purchases’, where you can buy those filters.
“For example, we have Miloš Škorpil, one of the biggest celebrity runners here. Miloš has his community of runners, and will have a filter ‘Eat with Miloš’, and he will be recommending what people who believe in him should eat. And immediately the application will take the selection and make it according to his philosophy. Or you can follow any kind of doctor or any kind of diet – lactose-free, gluten-free, whatever.”
“So, you can make in-app purchases for a euro or two, which is a paid thing for the consumer, but relatively simple. And it will be connected directly to the e-commerce, where we will obviously be getting some affiliate fees, etc.”
“In Phase 4, we are also planning to start with the verification of foods and the foodstuff’s origins. So, we could start with let’s say a local alcohol maker, who I know is really an honest guy – he has nothing to hide, in other words – we will get together with him, follow the process, and basically make everything transparent how he makes it. And eventually, he will make an independent test of the ingredients and stuff, and if everything goes well, and the test confirms what they say is there, and we have all the information, we will store everything in block chains, so it’s not manipulated by anyone, and we will give them a little ‘tick’ –a blue tick – you know it from Facebook, which means that this particular product is verified.
“It doesn’t mean it’s good or bad quality – it means it’s verified; everything they say about it is true. And you can find the information in the block chain, which I think can be a very positive inspiration for other producers, because obviously this will mean that the product will score slightly better than the others because they are transparent. Eventually, I think this will lead to a very positive change among the producers to be more transparent, more open – because that’s, in the end, what we need to have.”
“We are currently creating the Food Rating Index – we are following the Health 2020 – National Strategy for Health Protection [and Promotion and Disease Prevention]. One part of it says that people should be aware of what they are eating and the information related to food production, etc. Today, practically everything is under cover, everything is secret. If you go to a retail store and ask where the bread is coming from, they will not be able to tell you. Everything is kept a big secret – and there is no real reason. We need to know what we are eating and where it comes from, etc.”
“So, this project is taking into consideration, as I said, up to seventy parameters, so far – not only the traditional or classic things like composition, additives and production, but the source of the raw materials. I think in a few years, we’ll be asking questions like, ‘What exactly the cow is eating?’ – the cow used in the chain of milk and meat production – ‘What is the cow eating in the summer? In the winter?’ So, we will be going as far as this to the primary source of the raw material in order to understand and map and basically ‘disrupt’ the thing as it is today.”
“And we will literally see into the pedigree of each product because you will see the details and understand how and why, exactly, is the product scoring – and you can obviously compare because you can take six products, scan them, and immediately see which scores the best.”
If you were to try to look yourself at all the small print on the product labels, you would need quite a lot of time…
“Right. You don’t have to – because that’s what we are doing. All you have to do, as you can see in the application, is just open the scanner, here, scan any sort of bar code of a product, and it will immediately tell you the number. As you see, it will immediately show you the colour, which is from green, which is good, to dark red, which is bad. And you will be open to open this and understand the details of every sub-category that scores in the final number.”
Without naming names, I see there’s a beer here that’s got a 53 percent rating – which is kind of questionable. Can you already say what is the concern there?
“Not at the moment because the numbers are still in progress. The back end is still in the final tweaking. We’re going to launch the internal beta testing in about two, three weeks. We already have hundreds of registered users who want to become internal beta testers, and we will test with them actually two things – the numbers [scores] and the coverage of the database.”
“We can’t launch it without at least eight percent of the market covered because otherwise it doesn’t make sense. So these will be the two parameters and what you see here is a work in progress, so I cannot comment on it. Later, you will see those differences in colours and you will see the details – I’ll be able to tell you what’s wrong, or what’s right.”
“But we can try it – take something from the fridge.”
Yes, let’s do that.
“So, we have some milk here. We take the milk and all this [the small print and ingredients on the label] you don’t have to read because it’s already taken into consideration… Here we go – see? Immediately you see the number. Later, you will see the number in the categories, and you will see the details, which will be clickable, openable. If we had other milks here, we could compare very quickly two, three and it would show you immediately the best one. …”
“This other one for example is not in the database – it’s something new. We’re still collecting databases, and you can even report the missing products. Take the picture, report it, and we will add to the database and the index.”
And the January roll-out in the Czech Republic will be also in English?
“In Czech. We obviously start with the market that we know the best, but we’re already working on the German market – we want to quickly expand to the German-speaking countries and then the rest of the European market will be relatively fine because the legislation is everywhere the same, or very similar. So, we are pretty much able to harvest, process and index the data relatively quickly. We then just translate the application and roll it out in other countries. So there will be a relatively quick expansion.”
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