Hitchcock of IFT said big retailers have a major voice in the requirements for traceability in the supply chain. Some of the advantages of blockchain technology are its speed and the fact that the documentation of transactions can’t be changed after they are posted.
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“One of the key strengths is the fact that blockchain is an immutable ledger where the data can’t be changed. That improves the quality of the data,” says Bhatt. “And blockchain is a consensus mechanism. If there’s a shipment event there needs to be a receiving event. The quantity must be aligned. Reducing disputes creates efficiencies in the supply chain. You don’t want to be identifying inconsistencies during a crisis.”
He adds that he considers blockchain to be “democratic” in that it is not controlled by one company, so it’s faster to get to the root cause of a problem. “There are efficiency gains that reduce the overall cost of technology and traceability,” he says.
This is important because the number of recalls is increasing, according to Hitchcock. “That’s less tied to the ability to track them and more to the increased ability to detect issues,” he says. “We’re getting more data in sharable form with new handheld data collection devices and blockchain or cloud software.”
There has been an uptick in the use of blockchain technology, says Kevin Otto, MBA, senior director of community engagement GS1 US, a nonprofit offering voluntary standards for barcodes based in Ewing, N.J. “We’re seeing more blockchain software players,” he says. “IPC-Subway uses our standard so it can send push notifications to only the impacted restaurants.” That allows food service companies to track batch lots and throw away only the affected food rather than all food. “It’s faster and safer,” he adds. “Blockchain also can enhance other business practices.”
Dr. McEntire of United Fresh says industry participants are eagerly awaiting FDA’s announcement of the high-risk foods and what additional recordkeeping for traceability will be needed. “I expect they will be aligned with the Produce Traceability Initiative,” she says.
Hitchcock says that, while it still isn’t clear which foods will be included, any food without a final microbial kill step could be considered high risk. That includes raw foods such as fish, vegetables, fresh foods, and items in quick restaurant buffets.
Some are concerned FDA’s smarter food safety initiative may become a de facto requirement, says Dr. McEntire. “But, from my perspective, many companies are already adopting technology,” she adds. “For blockchain, you need good quality data and data that are relatable to each other between supply chain partners.”
Bhatt says that with its blueprint, FDA is intent on elevating the baseline for food safety across the industry. “There will always be leaders like Walmart, but FDA will send a strong message to the rest of the industry that they need to do better,” he says.
One of the key questions is what to do with all of the data that will be collected. “The industry needs education and training as it brings new digital technologies to the workforce,” Hitchcock says. “We need knowledge to handle large data sets and make business decisions based on the information.”