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Between farms and tables, the United States food supply chain makes dozens of stops: at processors and warehouses, giant freezers and container ships, trucks and trains, and supermarket and grocery shelves. Meanwhile, about 48 million Americans—that’s one in six—find themselves sick from foodborne illnesses each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, Congress and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration recognized that more transparency in the global supply chain can help curb foodborne illness and fraud, writing into the law that the government should be developing technologies that “enhance the tracking and tracing of food.”
The solution to full-on food traceability could come from an invention best known for its financial applications: blockchain technology. Blockchain is the decentralized tracking system behind Bitcoin, the infamous cryptocurrency whose price soared late last year, bringing it to the attention of those outside of finance and tech.
Blockchain technology is a shareable, unchangeable record of data points created in real-time without reliance on third parties, like banks or software companies. Because users cannot edit the record, blockchain technology is thought to be secure, verifiable, and transparent.
The promise of this distributed ledger has intrigued those in industries outside of finance, the food industry being one of them. Already, technologists and entrepreneurs are looking to blockchain as a way to improve food traceability from farms to end users, securely yet easily and relatively inexpensively.
The solution to full-on food traceability could come from an invention best known for its financial applications: blockchain technology.
A decentralized ledger still needs inputs, so blockchain’s usefulness for food traceability depends on whether people at every stage of the supply chain adopt it. Ease of use would likely increase adoption; that’s where the Internet of Things (IoT) comes in.
Any kind of trackers in a physical space, like probes in a field or thermometers in a storage facility, can collect data and transmit it via the internet. This automatic input from IoT could be one kind of entry in the food system’s blockchain ledger, requiring little manual input but promising enormous transparency into conditions up and down the chain.
For farmers, the traceability from blockchain technology could have several advantages.
Farmland registry. The past life of any farmland is imperative information for any potential buyer. If data about individual fields, like organic matter levels or fertilizer additions, is stored using blockchain, it will serve as a permanent, unchangeable registry that can help potential farmland buyers make decisions about what to buy in the future. This could be especially valuable in countries without trusted land registries, according to a presentation by the consulting firm Deloitte.
Value add. Consumers value transparency, and they will pay a premium for farm products produced in a way that meets their individual values. If farmers have a proven way for retailers and shoppers to verify their excellent farming and soil health practices, those farmers can then reap the economic benefits of their sustainable methods.
Waste prevention. While there is limited data on on-farm loses, a report by Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data found that 10.1 million tons of food go to waste each year on U.S. farms. Blockchain could enable a real-time marketplace for some of the unsold produce directly from farms, especially bumper crops. And a blockchain-powered real-time market would provide the desired transparency for food service companies that are committing to sourcing from reliable markets.
The middle of the supply chain can be opaque, as processing turns ingredients into products and products travel vast distances, sometimes internationally.
Finding contamination. Using IoT, details about any food’s location, location history, shipping time, and storage circumstances could be visible to any buyer, who would be armed with knowledge against paying for inferior or unsafe products. For example, if food at Chipotle begins sickening customers, the chain could track its ingredients through the supply chain, checking both sourcing and conditions to figure out where the contamination started and what other foods and locations might have the bad ingredients.
Crossing borders. With blockchain’s complete ledger, every movement in a food product’s journey is visible to a customs agent, guaranteeing transparency even during border crossings. Of course, this will only be the case if every member of the supply chain complies. This winter, IBM and shipping company Maersk jointly founded a company devoted to providing more transparency as goods travel internationally. Their idea is to reduce the complexity and expense of trade documentation while providing “end-to-end supply chain visibility,” according to the press release.
Distributor validation. According to Raja Ramachandran, the CEO of Ripe.io, a company experimenting with blockchain solutions for food traceability, “distributors and brokers as the predictor of the long-term adoption of our blockchain.” As those who oversee the least-transparent pieces of the supply chain, distributors “rely on verbal assertions from farmers while being under pressure from processors and buyers to provide more transparency to the origin of the product (product type, farming practices, harvest date, treatment,” Ramachandran writes. This combination can allow distributors to check out their farmers’ practices—and to have their own practices observed by their buyers.
For end users and the retailers that sell to them, food traceability through blockchain means the possibility of a real-time market and the ability to see which farmer grew which food.
Assured provenance. With a blockchain system, stores and restaurants promising safe, healthy cuisine to their customers can now prove that their assertions are accurate. According to a 2016 report by Label Insight, most consumers today do not trust the way brands are currently providing them with product information. With blockchain technology, consumers would be able to see the evidence about a food’s geographic origin verify an organic certification.
True expiration dates. Grocers and restaurants adhere to expiration dates regulated by state law, leading to huge amounts of waste. And in The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste, a report by Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, 90 percent of Americans throw out food prematurely due to confusion over labels. More transparency or regulation is needed to inform customers of when their food is expected to last until as well as when retailers should stop stocking a certain item on the shelves. In response to this, in 2017, Walmart announced a blockchain collaboration with IBM to improve the way food is tracked and transported. Ensuring more accurate expiration dates was among the ways Walmart plans to use blockchain technology to both restore consumer trust and reduce waste at the retailer level.
Anxiety about sourcing and food safety is growing, and many companies have already moved to implement more transparent tracking, often using scannable codes. IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, and Oracle all offer blockchain-as-a-service for companies developing new ways to ensure traceability across the value chain.
While tracking with blockchain technology can be cheaper and less onerous than any kind of manual scanning, its effectiveness will depend on how much data companies and people at each step of the chain want to crunch. Will restaurant chefs have time to track a fish back to its origin? Or will supermarket shoppers want to pause by their carts to trace the wheat, salt, and yeast in a cracker back through the supply chains to their sources?