How can blockchain improve food safety?

 
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In a recent interview, Frank Yiannas, Walmart’s food safety VP, announced Walmart’s intention to adopt the distributed ledger technology or blockchain for food tracking system to improve food safety. This statement contradicts his previous stance on blockchain as he was known for his sceptical view on the blockchain technology application in the food industry. However, after his collaboration with IBM to digitise the food supply chain, he experienced, what he called, a “religious conversion”. As a leading retail corporation, Walmart is amongst the first to integrate blockchain into its food tracking system. Following this intention, Walmart has requested its leafy green suppliers to submit their data to the blockchain database by September 2019.

During the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo in Washington DC, he mentioned that the existing food system is chaotic and decentralised. Farmers often change their suppliers posing challenges for a central organisation, such as Walmart, to digitally track the food movement in real time. He realised that the application of the blockchain technology, that is based on a decentralised and distributed model, was a perfect fit for the food tracking issue. Additionally, the blockchain technology reduces the workload of a central organisation and prevents incorrect information to be entered in the system – because each node on the chain must agree with this new information. His vision is to create a FedEx-liked system for food, where all movements are transparent and traceable.

Figure: Complexity of the current food chain (Source:  IBM ).

Figure: Complexity of the current food chain (Source: IBM).

How can blockchain be used to improve food safety? The blockchain is immutable, any data that goes into the chain is permanent. New information will be linked to the previous transaction instead of changing the data. If changes are required, blockchain for business works just like a pen. When you need to correct your writing, you cross the previous information, and then proceed to write the correct information. Therefore, it allows visibility on the historical updates, improving trust in all records on the chain. The great use of blockchain in the food industry can also be linked to its ability to ensure that appropriate food checks are conducted at certain stages in the distribution system. This action improves food safety, prevents fraudulent claims, and create a sustainable food supply.

While there are various advantages extracted from tracking the food movement, the blockchain application can also help to reduce food waste and save money, for example during a foodborne disease outbreak. So, how can this system be used to mitigate foodborne illness such as an E.coli outbreak? In the event of an epidemic, the first thing that we would like to do is to find out the origin of the disease. Faster and accurate responses can presumably stop the spread of the disease. Whereas, correct identification of the origin can help to find the root cause of the outbreak and design appropriate preventative measures. It will also avoid unaffected products from being falsely incriminated, therefore reducing food waste and food recall. As for the suppliers, it can help to preserve their reputations as genuine suppliers.

Consequently, consumers also receive several added values with the implementation of this new system. Based on recent research conducted by Elementar UK, 8 out of 10 people check the origin of their purchased foods. The result shows that people have an enhanced awareness in knowing the food origin, beyond just nutritional values and price. This new system will allow customers to immediately see where the products were harvested and distributed until they reached the store. Consequently, food labelling that is backed by trustworthy information would improve consumers’ confidence in food products.

Though blockchain seems to be beneficial for main retailers and consumers, the application of blockchain should also add business values to their distributors/suppliers. The Global Food Traceability Center at the Institute of Food Technologists indicated that the blockchain application could help to reduce food waste on the distributor end. It can aid to maintain the products’ freshness by adding sensors to monitor temperature and their movement. Thus, making inventory more efficient and improving supply chain productivity.

In any technological development, there will always be challenges in its implementation. The applicability of the system for each actor in the network is one of the top issues that should be addressed. Depending on the size of the companies, they might choose cheaper and more efficient providers which can induce interoperability issues between each actor in the food network. Furthermore, each company might have a different level of technical capability that affects its implementation cost, lowering their profit margin. When this factor is involved, it is essential that the companies understand the real business values behind this technological development. Overcoming these challenges is imperative to ensure successful implementations of food traceability to improve food safety.

Can the blockchain be the future of food safety? As of now, there is no definitive answer for this question. It remains to be seen whether this system will have a measurable impact. Whilst it can be argued that the system would incur additional costs, we should appreciate efforts attempted to improve public health and food safety. There are, of course, certain issues that cannot be solved by the blockchain application, for instance, if someone has opened the box or if the vegetables are replaced. In those cases, human interventions are still required to minimise their occurrences. Nevertheless, this new system pushes the boundary of the food system. With growing expectation on food safety, I believe there would be more application of the blockchain technology in the future. In a few years, we might be able to receive information such as a traceable data of pesticides usage and why they’re being used.

References

Galvez, J.F & Mejuto, Juan & Simal-Gandara, Jesus. (2018). Future challenges on the use of blockchain for food traceability analysis. TrAC Trends in Analytical Chemistry. 107. 10.1016/j.trac.2018.08.011.

Yiannas, F. (2018). A New Era of Food Transparency Powered by Blockchain. Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization, 12(1-2), 46-56.

 

 
Javier Bilbao