Michael Kwiecien wants to bring smart phone technology to the grocery aisle, where everyday shoppers with food allergies can quickly identify allergens in products on the shelf.


“If you’re looking for one allergy in the label, you can do it in a timely fashion. But if you start looking for two or three or multiple food allergens in one food product label, you could be sitting there all weekend. It is a very arduous task,” said the owner of Waterloo-based software developer Visdatec Inc.


An engineer by trade, Kwiecien, himself, has a sensitivity to dairy products, as does his daughter. His frustration with his food allergies led him to design the Apple iPhone application, MyFoodFacts, to help consumers identify food allergens in products by using the device camera to scan bar codes.


The app recognizes popular food allergens, but users can customize the software to identify only those relevant to them. The software is backed by a proprietary database currently stocked with more than 100,000 products including national brands, private labels and some organic names, said Kwiecien.


“If you set it for milk, tree nuts, soy, what have you, it will pull up any or all of those if they are present,” said Kwiecien.


Visdatec is among the Canadian companies nominated this year for the ITAC 10th Annual IT Hero Awards, which recognize the creative application of IT to significantly improve the lives of Canadians and demonstrate social and economic benefit.


ComputerWorld Canada will feature several nominees in the weeks preceding the unveiling of the winners on June 22. Visdatec is nominated in the Corporate IT Hero Awards category sponsored by Research in Motion Ltd. There is also a Community IT Hero Award category sponsored by Innovapost Inc.


The iPhone MyFoodFacts app is focused primarily on the U.S. market right now, given the relatively high ratio of iPhone adoption south of the border. But Kwiecien said the company is currently working on augmenting the number of Canadian products in the database, as well as extending the app to other mobile platforms like the BlackBerry and Google Android. The next release will have a feature that allows the user to add unique allergens not identified by the app.


Beatrice Povolo, director of programs and services with Toronto-based Anaphylaxis Canada, said the MyFoodFacts app is a great technology to have in addition to using other tools in the prevention of allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock.


However, Povolo cautioned that it remains important to read the food label on products and not just depend solely on scanning barcodes. “Food manufacturers can and do change the ingredients list or their precautionary statements, so you want to make sure the most up-to-date information is represented to the consumer,” said Povolo.


Kwiecien agreed that MyFoodFacts “enhances” the users’ shopping experience as an additional tool to other due diligence efforts like reading labels. However, he added that the exhaustive R&D and quality assurance process undertaken by food manufacturers allows the MyFoodFacts database time to remain fresh.


“By the time the product reaches the marketplace, the food product information centre should be updated,” said Kwiecien.


MyFoodFacts isn’t just a solitary application. What’s different is a community called “What’s in your Cupboard” that’s made up of food allergy sufferers being built around the app, said Kwiecien.


Typically, apps get created, put on the market and then forgotten, but Kwiecien said his approach is to stay connected with the users. “We are completely hands-on and involved in developing a relationship with our community and are focused on their well-being and welcome their input, comments and thoughts,” said Kwiecien.


MyFoodFacts is currently available through the Apple App Store.


The IT Hero Awards program was developed in 2001 by ITAC in partnership with Industry Canada.


Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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