The food industry has been abuzz lately about the potential of blockchain to solve the problem of end-to-end traceability in the supply chain.
For non-techies, the whole idea can be opaque, especially since blockchain is associated with bitcoin, that mysterious digital currency that few understand. Then, last year, IBM started investing in blockchain development, announcing plans to use the technology to improve supply chains across many industries, including food.
So, let’s explore exactly what blockchain is and what impact it may have on the future of the food industry.
What is blockchain?
A blockchain is a ledger, just like the ones banks use to keep track of accounts. But, rather than all of the records being kept in the same place, they’re distributed across different computers. It’s like a bank ledger, without the bank.
The transactions themselves are the “blocks,” Starting from the original block, each subsequent record is time-stamped and “chained” to the one before it. In this way, there’s a direct line back to the original transaction. Also, because it’s distributed, there are multiple copies, and each amendment must be independently verified against more than one copy.
This organization makes blockchain data very easy to share, so everyone knows what’s going on, and very difficult to modify, so there’s little chance of inaccuracies or fraud.
What does blockchain mean for the food industry?
Currently, the biggest benefits of blockchain are seen in supply chain management. This could have a huge impact in particular on food safety.
Supply chain transparency is one of the tenets of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). It’s also key in helping food manufacturers avoid recalls.
The problem is that full transparency is difficult to attain. FSMA requires manufacturers to take a “one-up, one-back” approach, which means you know where your product came from and where it’s going.
But, as we’ve seen recently with the ever-expanding recalls related to Listeria found in cheese products, looking one up and one back doesn’t catch problems that are two or more steps away. And these problems can be costly for everyone.
With blockchain, everyone can see the transaction records of a product, all the way back to the very beginning. Jorge Izquierdo, VP of market development for the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (P.M.M.I.), likened it to a pedigree, telling Food Business News:
“With blockchain you have a birth certificate for every product and almost a resume. It tells everyone in the supply chain who has done what to an individual product. It’s like a pedigree for individual products and, in the future, the amount of information you are going to be able to get is really amazing.”
One of the biggest blockchain tests currently in progress in the food industry is a partnership between IBM and Walmart to track pork products in China. The goal is to trace the meat end-to-end: from producers to distributors, grocers, and consumers.
The information stored in the blockchain will include everything from farm origins and factory data to expiration dates, storage temperatures, and shipping information. The hope is that this information helps keep the supply chain secure to protect against incidents like the 2014 scandal in which Chinese meat suppliers were discovered supplying tainted meat to McDonald’s or the 2015 scandal in which Chinese authorities seized 100,000 of smuggled rotten meat making its way into the country.
It’s still too early to tell what real impact blockchain will have on the food industry. But so far, it looks like this might be the answer to the supply chain problems food manufacturers around the world have been looking for.