Several major food companies and retailers, including Tyson Foods, Nestlé, Dole, Kroger, and Walmart, are partnering with IBM to test whether blockchain technology, the tamper-proof, cryptography-based recordkeeping system behind Bitcoin and other cyber-currencies, can be used to ensure the integrity of the global food safety distribution chain.
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Because production and distribution records maintained by blockchain cannot be falsified without leaving an evidentiary trail, food producers and regulators could use it to quickly trace food products back to their source, allowing for fast recall and removal in case of contamination or fraud.
For example, it took FDA more than two months to identify the source of Salmonella-tainted Maradol papayas, which have thus far sickened more than 200 people in 23 states, resulting in 65 hospitalizations and one death. Had blockchain been used to create a digital ledger of the distribution chain, the farm in southern Mexico could have been identified within a matter of seconds.
“In the case of the global food supply chain, all participants—growers, suppliers, processors, distributors, retailers, regulators, and consumers—can gain permissioned access to known and trusted information regarding the origin and state of food for their transactions,” IBM said in a statement announcing the food safety collaboration in August.
In addition to Tyson Foods, Nestlé, Dole, Walmart, and Kroger, other companies in the collaboration include Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, McCormick and Co., McLane Co., and Unilever. They will work with IBM to identify new areas where the global food supply chain can benefit from blockchain.
“Unlike any technology before it, blockchain is transforming the way like-minded organizations come together and enabling a new level of trust based on a single view of the truth,” says Marie Wieck, general manager of IBM Blockchain.
This “single view of the truth” refers to the digital ledger of transactions that is available to all participating members, but which cannot be altered without leaving a record of who changed what and when. Bitcoin and other similar cryptocurrency applications use an open-source, peer-to-peer network of decentralized computers to process the complex blockchain algorithms and maintain system integrity. Corporate blockchain applications, on the other hand, including IBM’s and those of large financial institutions, are closed and use their own centralized computer systems and private networks.
New Era of Transparency
“Blockchain technology enables a new era of end-to-end transparency in the global food system—equivalent to shining a light on food ecosystem participants that will further promote responsible actions and behaviors,” says Frank Yiannas, Walmart’s vice president for food safety. “It also allows all participants to share information rapidly and with confidence across a strong trusted network. This is critical to ensuring that the global food system remains safe for all,” he adds.
This is not Walmart’s first foray into blockchain. As part of a $25-million, five-year initiative, the company last year partnered with IBM and Tsinghua University to collaborate on ways to improve the way food is tracked, transported, and sold to consumers in China. (Walmart has more than 400 stores in Mainland China, which has become notorious for food fraud and other food-related scandals.)
China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of pork, and Walmart created a pilot blockchain project involving the distribution of pork from Chinese farms through every stage of the supply chain to retail stores. Blockchain allowed specific pork packages to be traced in seconds or minutes instead of days or weeks, Walmart announced earlier this year.
In a separate but parallel pilot project in the U.S., Walmart said it took six days, 18 hours, and 26 minutes using conventional recordkeeping to trace a package of mangoes back to the farm in the U.S. where they were grown. But using blockchain, the same trace took only a few seconds to complete.