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From field to fork: How blockchain can improve food supply safety

From field to fork: How blockchain can improve food supply safety 

The Government of Canada estimates that 4 million Canadians are affected by a food-borne illness, leading to 11,600 hospitalizations and 238 deaths.

It can often take several weeks, or even months, to identify the exact point of contamination which not only creates wasted resources but also can lead to further illness. Consider the ongoing investigation by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) of bovine tuberculosis (TB), which was detected in September 2016 and is projected for completion in December 2017.

Manav Gupta

Contamination, food-borne illness, and the economic burden of recalls are some of the serious concerns surrounding food safety and can result because of a lack of access to information and traceability within the supply chain.

All over the world, there are processes in the food supply chain that open the industry up to vulnerability, costly measures, and inefficient procedures. To avoid the pitfalls in our current supply system, we need to establish a level of trust for all involved in bringing our food from farm to table. Consumers are savvy shoppers. They want to ensure the food they consume is safe by knowing where products are made and what they contain.

It’s clear that transparency needs to exist between all members of the food ecosystem, including growers, suppliers, retailers, and customers. To do this well, we need blockchain.


Bring on the blockchain

Blockchain is a shared, immutable ledger for recording the history of transactions. It fosters a new generation of transactional applications that establish trust, accountability, and transparency for any asset. Information is written on the ledger once consensus is achieved between the participants in the business network. Once written, data cannot be altered on the blockchain. Each record is time-stamped and joined to the previous event record to establish an unbroken chain of trust. 

All members have universal and permissioned visibility into these transactions to enable a clear, end-to-end view of a specific product that starts from the source and ends at the consumer. For the global food supply chain, this means there is access to trusted information regarding the origin and state of food.

Despite the abundance of data we have at our fingertips; supply chains are still brimming with blind spots. Details like whether or not a truck left a warehouse on time or if supplier sent a full order can sometimes go unknown. Blockchain technology reveals where an asset is at any point in time, who owns it, and what condition it is in. With this data, individuals can better predict when goods will arrive and in what condition.

Safety first

Blockchain creates the ability to quickly trace contaminated products at the source and greater agility to stop the spread of a potential illness. It can also enable retailers to better manage the shelf-life of products in grocery stores to further protect food authenticity.

For example, a loaf of bread could be tracked to the factory floor and ship container, all the way back to its original state as wheat on a farm. Here, organizations can monitor and capture crop conditions on blockchain and access data on qualities such as moisture content, or whether a product has been genetically modified. Data like farm origination details, lot numbers, factory and processing information, expiration dates, and shipping statuses can all be digitally recorded on the blockchain to provide insight into characteristics of the end-product.

Tracking food and related goods on blockchain reduces risk and raises the bar on quality in production and distribution. It’s about ensuring the sushi you eat is made with fish that was harvested sustainably from the ocean. It’s about knowing the steak you purchased at the grocery store was raised ethically and transported at the proper temperature. What’s more, it’s about the ability to identify when something goes wrong and stop the possible spread of foodborne disease and illness.

Food is one of life’s most important resources. Our survival depends on it – its accessibility, traceability, and safety.

Manav Gupta is a distinguished engineer and chief technical officer of cloud at IBM Canada

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