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The blockchain is continuing to make progress in the world of food. People are eager for tools that will allow for better traceability and transparency along the supply chain. People have heard about bitcoin, and they’ve heard the words “blockchain” alongside it. Although the technology itself is somewhat opaque, the promise of daylight has proven to be extremely attractive. So attractive that Carrefour blockchain technology has joined the other big companies adopting the new tech.
Just ask any of the companies who have thrown their weight behind IBM’s blockchain tech. They include many of the titans of the food world (and of any other world, really, as far as business goes): companies like Nestle, Walmart, Kroger, Tyson, and Dole are all trying to get on board with the blockchain. We’ve written about the Walmart initiative here at Make Food Safe. The company is shooting for vertical integration that’s undergirded by the technology, seeking to create supply chains from the farm to the shelf that are built along the backbone of the blockchain.
Now, Europe’s largest retailer is buying a ticket to ride as well. Carrefour SA announced this week that they’re also interested in IBM’s blockchain tech so that they can keep better track of their chicken, eggs, and tomatoes. The French retail titan wants to expand the system to some 300 different fresh products that they offer by the year 2022.
Their hope is to shore up consumer trust in the company and their products, and to give themselves a toolkit that allows for quick backtracking of a product in the unfortunate event that one of their foods is implicated in the outbreak of a pathogen.
Food recalls are coming thick and fast these days. Part of it has to do with tighter regulatory infrastructure; another part, with better detection technology that allows for inspectors to sniff for the bacteria, viruses, and contaminants; and yet another with the advent of quick genotyping and large databases of pathogen DNA that allow scientists to draw connections between bacteria that are separated by space but closely related through their genetics.
There are, however, several impediments to tracing food outbreaks and conducting food recalls when using traditional technology. Say that you’re Carrefour, and you find out that several customers who have recently bought eggs from your store have fallen ill with salmonella. You’re now in a race against time to determine the origin and the extent of the outbreak. Without blockchain technology, you need to start working your way backwards along the supply chain: starting from the store where the eggs were purchased, and speaking in turn to the person who transported them there from the wholesaler, the wholesaler themselves, the transportation company that they got them from, the farmer who provided them to the wholesaler, and the employees of that farmer.
Once you’ve gotten to these people, you’ll need different sets of records from each of them. Expiry or spoilage dates for the eggs in question. Safety checklists that ensure that they were handled in a safe and hygienic way. Cleaning records for the rooms or vehicles in which they were prepared, packaged, and transported. Documents that reflect compliance with local food regulations and internal company policy. When all of this is on paper, and all of it is administered through various different levels of the organization, figuring out an origin point for a batch of eggs that have been contaminated with salmonella can be a complicated process. Right now, these investigations usually take days or weeks to play out.
With the blockchain, there’s not a mish-mash of different administrators and administrative procedures: there’s just one mechanical overlord. A single computer program that keeps track of the different hands that the eggs have passed through and the different tasks that should have been completed to make sure that they’re kept free of bacteria like salmonella. The backtracking over days or weeks? That’s no longer necessary with a single centralized system. The blockchain can spell out where the eggs have been in a matter of seconds. And, as a bonus, it’s structured in such a way that gaming or deceiving it requires an immense amount of computing power.
So, why hasn’t everybody jumped on board yet? A couple of reasons. If you scroll back up and look at the list of the companies that are early adopters of IBM’s blockchain tech – Nestle, Walmart, Kroger – you’ll notice something that they share in common: they’re all big. Quite big. All those companies, in fact, are amongst the biggest in the world of any type. That means that many of them have vertically integrated their supply chains: they own part or all of the companies beneath them that are involved with growing, cooking, or supplying their food products.
Because these companies are vertically integrated, putting the blockchain in place is a cinch: all they have to do is speak to their subsidiaries and get them on board with the program. If you’re a food related business working in a supply chain that isn’t vertically integrated, however, then getting the blockchain is a whole different deal. The tracking system doesn’t work if there are any gaps in the process: in order to see results, you need to have everyone on board. Any mid-level wholesalers or distributors who aren’t using the blockchain tech will leave gaps in the record that break the program. The real challenge for blockchain evangelists, then, won’t be the big players: it’s getting everyone else on board so that the technology can be employed more widely.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)