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- IBM is working with large food suppliers like Walmart, Dole, and Nestlé to incorporate blockchain technology, which underlies bitcoin, into the global food supply chain. Blockchain technology can quickly track a product’s progress from farm to store shelf. The technology offers a more efficient way to figure out when and where food items are contaminated, which can help producers an public health officials limit contagions.
Some of the world’s largest food companies are making a bet that blockchain technology, the digital ledger system that underlies bitcoin, can help improve food safety.
Dole, Driscoll’s, Tyson, and Nestlé are collaborating with IBM to develop a blockchain for the food supply system. The companies believe that the technology will allow companies and policy makers to better track items within the global food supply chain. Walmart, Unilever, and Kroger are also participating.
“Blockchain technology enables a new era of end-to-end transparency in the global food system,” Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Walmart, said in a statement. He added: “It also allows all participants to share information rapidly and with confidence across a strong trusted network.”
Among the issues the companies are looking to address is food contamination. It can often take months to identify when and where a product was contaminated. In the meantime, food can be either unnecessarily thrown out as a precautionary measure, or people can get sick from eating contaminated food that wasn’t tracked down.
Food producers could potentially address both problems with a blockchain for the food supply system. A blockchain is basically one comprehensive, universal receipt. The bitcoin blockchain is used to keep track of individual bitcoin tokens. Even though bitcoin transactions are often anonymous, every single thing that happens to a bitcoin token is added to a permanent record on the blockchain that follows the token around forever.
In the food supply context, a blockchain could be used to keep track of every single thing that happens to individual or groups of food products. That could make it easier to find out where a shipment of a particular product has been, say, or at what point in the supply chain it was contaminated. Such information could potentially prevent major outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.
Take the case of the salmonella outbreak that’s been linked to Maradol-brand papayas. The first illnesses were reported on May 17. As of August 16, 173 people across 21 different states in the US had fallen ill, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). While the CDC was able to determine the origin of the contaminated papayas, it’s clear that not all of the shipments have been tracked down or recalled, because people keep getting sick.
If the papaya shipments were recorded in a blockchain, some of those diseases might have been prevented. At least in theory, the blockchain record would make it easier to find out which shipments were exposed to the bacteria and where those shipments were delivered. It could also help companies and public health officials determine which communities might have been exposed.
IBM has already started testing out the technology with Walmart, which was able to track a product from a farm all the way to its store shelves. That tracking process, which historically has taken days or weeks, took seconds.