Traceability has permeated the fresh foods industry to varying degrees. For example, more than 65 percent of the produce industry has implemented traceability based on GS1 Standards, motivated to erase negative consumer perceptions of the long and dangerous food recalls of the early 2000s. The meat industry has also been leveraging standards for product traceability for more than 20 years. By contrast, the seafood industry has just begun its traceability journey, as it works through challenges with how to identify product from the source. However, there has recently been an increase in the use of barcodes by distributors and retail outlets, which may drive the adoption of GS1 Standards for traceability upstream more to fishermen and processors. Generally, about 25 large seafood companies have traceability programs underway.
Consumer packaged goods companies have also widely leveraged standards as a means to respond to consumer demand for e-commerce offerings and product information transparency. As a result, traceability enables a consumer to research ingredients and other information that may contain allergens or conflict with dietary concerns, such as clean eating and gluten free.
Product Recalls: A Future Opportunity for Blockchain
Product recalls are additionally significantly faster with standards in place to help break down any barriers caused by proprietary numbering systems and manual communication methods. During a recall, companies that maintain a standards-based framework can pinpoint affected product down to the UPC, which batch it came from in the manufacturing process, and during which dates it may have become contaminated. Once all this information is identified, it is often shared with retailers’ loyalty program members via a simple text or email.
Food traceability is improving now even without blockchain capabilities, but a strong case is being made for how blockchain represents an opportunity for traceability to move faster. Speeding up the recall process was precisely the impetus for Walmart’s well-publicized blockchain traceability pilot involving mangoes. Blockchain was used in tandem with Walmart’s established system of traceability based on GS1 Standards. Pallets of mangoes originating from a farm in Mexico were tagged with numeric identifiers. Every time the product made stops throughout the supply chain, their status was updated on the blockchain ledger.
After the pilot was completed, Walmart was able to pull up all relevant traceability information in seconds, compared to what historically would take a week to procure. All the mangoes’ identifying details are on the blockchain: the mangoes’ weight, the exact date they were harvested, and the orchard it originated from in Oaxaca, Mexico. It even included specific details of a hot-water treatment to rid the product of any insects, the exact date the importer received the shipment, when it passed through customs, and all other transport and storage through its arrival at a Walmart store.
Walmart is not the only company jumping on the blockchain train early. Last Thanksgiving, Cargill, the nation’s largest food manufacturer, also debuted a blockchain pilot program that allowed consumers to track where their turkey originated. Described in a press release as “the first and only major turkey brand to pilot a blockchain-based solution for traceable turkey,” Cargill’s Honeysuckle White brand demonstrated the company’s commitment to providing transparency for consumers. Consumers in select markets were able to enter an on-package code at HoneysuckleWhite.com to access the farm’s location by state and county, view the family farm story, see photos from the farm, and read a message from the farmer.
This example illustrates how blockchain can work to keep secure records of a product’s complete provenance. Coupled with GS1 Standards, a blockchain can record granular information about a product’s transformation and journey to the consumer—ensuring systems interoperability from supplier to manufacturer to distributor to retailer.