We care more than ever about the provenance and safety of what we eat, and blockchain technology can feed us the facts we need
More than 50 years of globalisation in food production has created a food supply chain that is more distributed, more international and more complex than at any point in history.
Growing consumer demand for choice and value has spawned global procurement networks involving multiple players, countries, legal systems and regulations.
As the supply chain has become more convoluted and harder to trace, the risks associated with its malfunction or abuse have increased. The impacts from scares about safety or questions about provenance – such as food fraud – are immediate.
“Every time there is a TV investigation related to food – asking whether an organic product is really organic, for example – we see a direct impact over the next week in our stores,” says Emmanuel Delerm, blockchain project manager at the French grocery giant Carrefour.
The impact of a contamination outbreak or an allergy-related death can be catastrophic, tainting entire brands as consumers suspect a systemic failure.
“For a major retailer, this could mean a problem in one range affecting thousands of products all under the same brand,” says Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium.
In the US, for example, it could take a week for the Food and Drug Administration to trace a lettuce back to the farm where it was grown.
“Typically, it involved a lot of paperwork,” says Tejas Bhatt, senior director, food safety, for Walmart. “as the FDA tried to map out how a product moved across the supply chain based on the paper trail.”
But the work of Walmart and IBM, powered by IBM Blockchain and part of the IBM Food Trust, has shown that there’s a much better – and faster – way.
IBM Food Trust, using blockchain technology running on the IBM Cloud, can connect growers, processors, distributors and retailers through a permanent and shared record of food-system data that can drastically cut the time needed to trace produce from farm to store. In a pilot programme, the time was reduced from almost seven days to just 2.2 seconds.
With consumers caring increasingly about the environmental and social impact of the way their food is sourced, securing accurate information about provenance gives a competitive advantage. Charles Redfield, executive vice-president of food at Walmart, says: “We have to go further than offering great food at an everyday low price. Our customers need to know they can trust us to help ensure that food is safe.”
Blockchain provides clear and accessible traceability of products through the entire supply chain, including a full record of the checks and inspections that food has faced in its journey. Besides giving retailers more confidence in the products they are selling, it also minimises the fallout from a food safety issue, allowing quicker and more localised recalls, thereby reducing waste.
Blockchain’s suitability for certification – easily allowing verification conditions to be set regarding ingredients, preparation and even working conditions – make it a vital resource in the fight against food fraud. The immutability of the record – once something is encoded in the blockchain it cannot be overwritten – makes tampering much more difficult.
“If ‘fair trade’ is logged on the blockchain, and individuals are attesting to it, it is far harder to fake,” says Jessica Douglas, blockchain leader at IBM Services.
By allowing participants to share their information while retaining ownership of it and being able to specify who sees what, the blockchain can unlock a new level of cooperation. Two competitors on the same network can control how much each other can see; farmers can ensure only the relevant information about confidential veterinary inspections can be viewed by others.
“The blockchain builds an environment where collaboration becomes easier without letting go of control of the data,” says Richard Stockley, blockchain business development executive at IBM.
Delerm adds, “What’s important is that Food Trust is a community approach. Farmers, breeders, logistics providers, supply chain participators, retailers – they are all putting their best efforts together.”
Meanwhile, collecting real-time information makes the supply chain more efficient, transparent and resilient. More accurate inventory information helps remove bottlenecks and optimises delivery timings: vegetables can be harvested only when they are needed, extending shelf life. More detailed information can focus controls and testing on especially vulnerable parts of a supply chain, reducing the chance that inferior or unsafe products reach consumers.
For foods where consumers need special reassurance – those they’ll be feeding their children, say, or that have been at the centre of bad publicity – the technology is proving particularly engaging to shoppers, says Delerm: “The more concerned people are about food, the more interest they have in its traceability.”
By reducing waste, increasing access to information on provenance and making the food supply network generally more transparent, blockchain shows how information technology can be used to benefit producers, retailers and consumers.