When the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP) was standardized in 1982, permitting the worldwide proliferation of interconnected networks and eventually the internet, very few would have ever dreamed of the digital information age it would unleash. Some now argue that blockchain has the potential to be the next digital age disrupter — a technology breakthrough that could change the food safety industry.
Online distributed ledgers, also known as blockchain, were developed in the early 1990s, but they remained relatively obscure until 2009 when Satoshi Nakamoto used it to create the digital cyptocurrency Bitcoin.
The idea of an unregulated currency not tied to any government institution is ripe for fraud and tampering, so Nakamoto used blockchain to protect against hacking and false manipulation of the currency.
Food Industry Giants Testing Already
With the recent flurry of foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls, all eyes are back on food safety, and some believe blockchain might provide true traceability solutions.
In fact, some of the food industry’s largest players have joined together to test using blockchain for traceability. Walmart and Nestlé, along with eight other companies, have launched the Food Trust in what they envision as a way to remake how food is tracked across the globe.
In a widely shared quote, Frank Yiannas, Vice President of Food Safety for Walmart, said blockchain is the “equivalent of FedEx tracking for food.” He is heading up the Food Trust project for the global retailer, working closely with IBM, which developed the blockchain platform the 10 food companies are testing.
During an IBM Internet of Things Conference, Yiannas laid out why Walmart and other companies are so interested in blockchain.
“In the 1980s, the typical grocery store had about 15,000 food products,” he said. “Today, your typical grocery store has more than 50,000 food products. Where do you think this is heading with e-commerce, where you can get online and order what you want, anywhere, and anytime? It is the endless story with 1 million food items. That is our near future.”
In a world where the food industry (including specialty crops) is already bedeviled by foodborne illness outbreaks, the picture is about to get a lot more complicated. And, while he said today’s modern food system offers the world many benefits and choices, its Achilles heel has been traceability and transparency. This is where blockchain comes in.
One of Yiannas’ go-to examples of how blockchain can speed up traceability is fresh sliced mangos sold in Walmart stores. Those mangos are mostly grown by small farms in Central and South America and transported by land, air, and sea to America and then sliced, packaged, and distributed to stores across the country.
“When you pick up a package of mangos, do you think of this complicated journey?” he asked. “More importantly, if you asked me where those mangos came from, or if you ask health officials where they came from if there was a health scare, how long will it take [to find that answer]?”
Yiannas said tracking a package of mangos from the store shelf back to the farm can take days, if not weeks, using traditional systems. With blockchain, that process could be reduced to minutes, if not seconds.
What impact might almost-instant traceability have on growers and the food industry as a whole? The current mandatory standard of companies keeping record of one step backward (who did you buy it from) and one step forward (who did you sell it to) can get complicated when produce follows multiple paths after it leaves the field.
Yiannas pointed to the 2006 E. coli contamination in spinach as an example of how an outbreak can quickly destroy a market. According to the CDC, there were 199 documented cases of sickness, 31 cases of Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (severe kidney failure), and three deaths in 26 states.
“For every documented case, somebody had to be sick enough to get tested and confirmed,” Yiannas said. “There were estimated to be more than 4,000 cases in that outbreak.”
In September 2006, the FDA told Americans not to eat spinach due to the ongoing outbreak. All spinach was pulled nationwide.
“Do you know how long it took the FDA to trace that back to the source?” Yiannas asked. “It took two weeks, so for two weeks there was no spinach served. And, when it was all said and done, they found out it was one supplier, one farm, one lot, and one day of production. The entire industry was killed, and all the farmers’ livelihoods [hurt] because they were not able to trace back efficiently. That is a major Achilles heel.”
Yiannas said this is where blockchain could make a difference and reduce the need for blanket recalls that can kill an industry. Walmart and IBM are working on two pilot projects — one in the U.S. and one in China. He called it a fully transparent, 21st Century digitized food system.
“We have been pursuing the Holy Grail of traceability and transparency for 20 years, but with blockchain and smart devices in every farmer’s hand, it can be done today,” he said.
The Catch Is Capturing the Data
While blockchain has many industries fired up about its disruptive potential, there remains the challenge of the human element and how well and accurately data are collected and put on a blockchain.
In addition, while blockchain might be able to quickly identify a product back to its source, the ability to quickly trace the source of contamination remains in question. The type of data collected in the chain might help point to a potential source, but not pick it out specifically.
That is why the food industry has been building a critical tracking event (CTE) framework to facilitate traceability. It goes on the assumption that each operator knows his or her operation best and provides latitude on how they collect traceable data. Much like how Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points form a food safety framework, CTE is a framework for traceability.
Bruce Welt, a Professor of agricultural engineering with UF/IFAS, has been studying the implications of blockchain on the food industry.
“I am very excited about blockchain,” Welt says. “I think it is going to bring a lot to the table, but it is not a silver bullet. Blockchain basically represents another way to store and share distributed data, which we have had for a long time.”
The fact blockchain is cloud-based is what has people excited. In a traceback event, you do not have to wait on an individual in the chain to dig out some paperwork or access it on their computer tracking system. It is on the cloud and readily available to anyone with access to the chain.
“Blockchain represents one possible implementation approach to store CTE data,” Welt says. “Blockchain is not necessary for traceability, but because it is cloud-based, it may be a convenient means for operators to ‘go along’ rather develop independent approaches for storing data in a globally retrievable manner.”
Then there is the fact that growers already chafe at the various third-party audits for food safety required by their buyers. And, the quest for blockchain full transparency might be yet another disruptive force and expense to deal with on the farm.
So, is blockchain the future of food safety? That remains to be seen, with a lot of work ahead. But for certain, if you grow and sell to major retailers and food companies, you will be hearing more about blockchain in the months and years ahead.
Breaking Down Blockchain
The easiest way to think of blockchain is an old-fashioned bookkeeping ledger. It also is called an online distributed ledger, meaning that all transactions recorded on a blockchain live online on cloud-based servers.
Each block in the chain holds data of some transaction. For example, if it were used in food traceability, a block originating from the farm might include the variety of crop planted, a history of inputs applied to the crop, harvest date and time, harvest crew, temperature and weather conditions during harvest, how quickly the crop was moved into pre-cooling, and much more.
Then a new block might be created at the packinghouse. It could include data on storage temperatures, the last time the packing line was sanitized, results of latest water testing, etc. A new block could be added for transportation of the produce and down the line until it reaches the retail shelf. It all stacks up to create what could be a highly detailed, highly protected, and transparent record that, in theory, can be traced very quickly.
The information in each block is protected by cryptography and hash keys. When a new block is created, it must have the hash key of the previous block. No matter how large the blockchain, each block can follow the hash keys back to the original block in the chain. If someone tried to tamper with a block in the chain, it would change the hash key, immediately raising a red flag, and causing other blocks in the chain to become invalid. In simple terms, this makes hacking a blockchain very difficult because of the open and transparent nature of its structure.
There is another layer of protection and transparency provided with blockchain. Blocks live on peer-to-peer networks, rather than managed by a central entity like a logistics manager. When someone joins a blockchain, they receive the entire copy of the chain. When someone creates a new block, the entire network gets a copy of it and can easily verify if the hash keys match up.