Blockchain Technology Creates a Rapid and Transparent Food Traceability System that Could Improve Global Food Safety
In the last blog post, we talked about Big Data and global food safety. In this post, we are going to talk about the use of blockchain technology to establish a rapid and effective food traceability system. Food traceability is the ability to track the movement of food one step back and one step forward throughout the food supply chain. The lack of a food traceability system is a major problem in a highly-globalized and complex food system. For example, a cheeseburger can contain more than fifty ingredients from upwards of fifty different countries, including some that may not have any food traceability systems in place.
All players in the food supply chain — regardless of size, including growers, processors, distributors and retailers — need to have a traceability system. In the event of a foodborne outbreak, a well-established and rapid traceability system is critical to protect consumer health by quickly recalling contaminated food before it reaches consumers. A rapid traceability system can enhance the ability of a food firm to access new markets, reduce liability costs, improve recall efficiencies, reduce product waste, enhance consumer confidence and subsequently increase revenue. International food safety agencies including the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), etc., are actively involved in improving global food traceability.
Traceability systems can be:
- Paper-based systems. While better than no system at all, paper-based systems are complex, costly and time-consuming; in 2006, it took more than two weeks to identify the source of spinach outbreak under a paper-based system.
- Digital systems.
Improving global food safety requires going beyond using traditional methods. Innovative digital technologies such as blockchain can be used to make traceability quick, reliable and cost effective. A blockchain is a publicly distributed digital ledger that stores, updates and verifies data across a decentralized peer-to-peer platform, where records (data) cannot be altered (more transparency and trust) without the consent of the network. Blockchain was first described by a group of researchers in 1992 and was originally intended to timestamp digital documents to prevent them from tampering. Blockchain was then adopted by Satoshi Nakamoto (the name used by the unknown person or people who designed bitcoin) for use in the cryptocurrency bitcoin in 2008. The bitcoin design has been the inspiration for other applications including food traceability. The success of blockchain technology to improve food traceability and transparency requires collaboration among different organizations.
The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) has collaborated with Walmart, Kroger, McLane Company, Tyson Foods, Golden State Foods, Nestlé, Dole and others to implement a food traceability system using blockchain technology. IBM blockchain technology has recently been piloted to trace back different food products including tuna, pork and mangoes. For example, Walmart conducted a trace-back test on mango slices, imported from Mexico, in one of its stores. The trace-back time was significantly reduced from about seven days (using the traditional paper-based system) to 2.2 seconds using blockchain technology.
Developing countries should invest in mandatory traceability regulations and embrace the use of digital traceability systems as an opportunity to protect their citizens, access international markets, enhance food security and improve global food safety. USAID staff should also be aware of this rapidly expanding space and help forge innovation and change through the opportunities that will become available.
What are the main challenges that face developing countries in establishing effective food traceability systems via blockchain technology?