What would you like with your turkey or Romaine lettuce? Some gravy? Some dressing? How about some blockchain?
Not a block of cheese. Not a sausage chain. But blockchain. The technology and approach that allow you share a database, which is duplicated across a network of many, many, many computers and other devices. This is different from a traditional database that is situated in one central location, owned by one person or organization, and thus more readily hacked or corrupted. Instead, everyone across the network can contribute information to this database without losing ownership of this information and at the same time benefit from all of the information in the database.
So, what then would blockchain have to do with your Holiday turkey and salad? Initiatives such as the IBM Food Trust are trying to use blockchain to help improve food safety, which has been a particularly prominent problem this year. If you haven’t heard, there is a continuing Salmonella outbreak linked to turkey and an ongoing Escherichia coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with Romaine lettuce. Since public health officials were not initially able to determine the specific sources of the contamination, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began by warning you to be careful with all raw turkey products and avoid all Romaine lettuce. Public health officials have now scaled back their Romaine lettuce warnings and are now focusing on Romaine lettuce from California. These 2 outbreaks are part of the worst year for reported multi-state food-borne infectious disease outbreaks in recent memory, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) lists.
Conducting food tracings and trying to determine the source of contamination can take considerable time, effort, and resources. The source can be anywhere along the supply chain, the complex system of locations, equipment, vehicles, processes, partners, and people that get food from farms and other origins all the way to your mouth. Well, at least to where you can purchase the food, as your fork may not necessarily be officially part of the supply chain.
No one really wins with food-borne infectious disease outbreaks, except for the bacteria and maybe toilet paper sellers. An outbreak can be very costly for everyone along the food supply chain, ranging from farmers to other suppliers to restaurants (as our study published in Public Health Reports showed) and other retailers. It also consumes public health and health care resources. Then, of course, there are the people who end up getting sick. When given the choice between diarrhea and no diarrhea, most people would choose no diarrhea. Plus, some of these illnesses can have very serious consequences, such as death.
Therefore, it is in everyone’s best interest to prevent these outbreaks from happening and identifying the source as soon as possible after contamination occurs to prevent further spread. Two keys to identifying the source are regular monitoring of the food supply chain and rapidly communicating and sharing information. However, this may be easier said than done since the supply chain stretches across wide geographic regions and many different parties who may operate in silos, both proverbial and literal silos.
Brigid McDermott, Vice President of the IBM Food Trust described food safety as “an ecosystem issue. The food supply chain includes many different partners that need to cooperate and work together and find out as soon as possible when there is an issue. But they have to able to share information in a way that it comfortable for everyone.”
These disparate parties may be reluctant to share information due to technological, data safety, privacy, and data ownership concerns. Different parties may have different ways of collecting and storing information. Many still use manual and paper approaches to track different processes and pass along certificates that can lead to inaccuracies and difficulty verifying the data. In this way, paper-based approaches could lead to more toilet paper use down the supply chain. Some use technological approaches that don’t readily talk to other technologies. However, centralized technological approaches raise the risk of hacking and corruption. Moreover, different parties may be worried about sharing information that could yield competitive advantages. And, of course, these days, selling data has become big business. Therefore, maintaining data ownership can be like trying to maintain ownership of your wallet. So what can be done to overcome these challenges?
Launched in August 2017, the IBM Food Trust is one example of using blockchain to help with food safety and utilizes the IBM Blockchain Platform.
Dan Albright, Managing Partner of Infosys Consulting, described the IBM Food Trust and also a Microsoft blockchain effort as “two of the biggest players in this space. But there are also a number of niche players with blockchain efforts for food safety.”
The predecessor to the IBM Food Trust was a 2016 collaboration between IBM, Walmart and Tsinghua University to use blockchain technology in food supply chains in China.
McDermott emphasized that “implementing blockchain did not just involve setting up the technology. There are many governance issues that needed to be decided such as what standards would be used and how the partners would interact with each other and the technology.”
Albright added that “getting all the partners to agree to participate can be initially a challenge, especially since there are so many different types of partners along the supply chain. Also, certifications and certification processes can be very different, especially in different countries.”
Here is a video from the IBM Food Trust:
The initial incarnation of the IBM Food Trust included 10 different partners who explored how blockchain could be used in tracing food. The IBM Food Trust includes modules that allow partners along a food supply chain to more securely and rapidly trace products, manage and share food certification and documents, and upload and manage relevant data on different supply chain processes.
Since its inception, the IBM Food Trust has entered over four million transactions onto the blockchain, tracked over 350 stock keeping units, traced nearly 3 million packaged food products, completed over 3,000 product traces completed, and connected 4,610 facilities via the blockchain network. On September 24, Walmart began requiring its leafy green suppliers to utilize the IBM Food Trust to track its products from the beginning of the supply chain.
As Albright indicated, food safety is not the reason to implement blockchain in a food supply chain. “Many consumers want to know where there food is coming from and to be able to very that the sources of their food. This includes determining whether food can actually be considered organic.” Nowadays with so many food supply chains extending globally, your food could have many more frequent flier miles than you.
Therefore, despite the fact you can’t stick a fork in blockchain and shouldn’t, blockchain is undoubtedly going to become more and more important in food and food supply in general. Blockchain alone won’t be the solution to preventing and controlling foodborne outbreaks. Good food safety practices still need to be in place, and human management issues will remain. But blockchain could help you know what you are and are not getting with your turkey, lettuce, and other foods.