Blockchain Could Make Our Food Supply Much Safer
Over the past month, consumers witnessed a series of food distribution disasters: Romaine lettuce was recalled across 11 states and Canada after more than 30 people reported illnesses; approximately 6.5 million pounds of various beef products was flagged for possibly containing salmonella; and more than 89,000 pounds of ready-to-eat ham products were recalled due to a listeria contamination.
In 2017 alone, there were more than 400 recalls issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The same year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recalled more than 20 million pounds of product.
The solution to these contamination problems isn’t years away. It’s here now, and many businesses are already implementing it -- blockchain technology. Wal-Mart, for instance, is already using blockchain to track all lettuce shipments to its more than 6,300 stores. And by January 31, 2019, all direct suppliers of lettuce will be officially required to use blockchain to track lettuce from farm to shelves.
Blockchain allows Wal-Mart to trace their products at each step of the shipping system, following the product from the factory floor to an individual truck to an individual store and, ultimately, to specific consumers. Tamper-proof sensor inputs and records mitigate the risk that food will be stored in improper conditions. Furthermore, the use of smart contracts expedites the loading process, which in turn alleviates the manual process that would otherwise take hours. This shortens the window that food could be exposed to improper environments and lowers the risk of contamination.
Not only does this streamline an outdated shipping network, reducing waste and saving both the company and the consumer money in the process, but blockchain could help pinpoint the exact distribution of soiled products. Over Thanksgiving in 2017, Cargill piloted a blockchain program to allow consumers to see where their Turkey came from -- literally from farm to table. Enter the ID of your turkey on a website, and see everything from where it was raised, to the path it took to the store. Increased visibility allows for increased granularity, reducing the risk that every single product nationwide has to be destroyed, and reducing the risk of people consuming tainted food solely due to the fact that we have no idea how to separate the tainted from the safe. Even if we can’t identify it down to single units due to items being picked in bulk (think of apples in a bin when it isn’t feasible to label each), but we can increase the visibility through smaller, more detailed lot tracking.
Wal-Mart now can track records of loads, geo-waypoints and other basic information to know the specific locations of tainted products and pull them systematically. The result: Wal-Mart says that blockchain technology has reduced their tracing efforts from days to seconds, which reduces consumer exposure to tainted food.
The risk, however, is that other retailers won’t want to play nice with Wal-Mart’s blockchain system. Why would they turn over their supplier and supply chain information over? This puts producers, manufacturers and carriers in a bind, because of the risk of needing to adopt multiple fractured systems without standardization. Many, including myself, believe that independent, permissionless, public blockchain systems like Ethereum are the answer to this problem.
Government, on the other hand, has been slow to update its response, leaving consumers with the same dysfunction -- the initial report of the contaminated product, ambiguity regarding where the product was shipped and confusion about who is impacted. The result: grocery stores frantically pull items from shelves, often far too late in the process. Consumers anxiously question whether the items in their own freezers are safe and, and worst of all, people get sick.
This outdated system fails in two key ways: first, it creates waste, with individuals outside the contamination zone throwing away good products out of fear; and more important, it creates widespread hysteria, the opposite of what any sound public health notification system should do. More information helps quell the fear, and provide peace of mind.
In response to these growing challenges, the F.D.A and the Department of Agriculture have touted a new policy in their consumer-protection efforts: name retailers, in addition to the contaminated product, in their public announcements. But this additional step still paints too broad a picture and does nothing to solve the core problem of providing consumers the information to understand whether the product they purchased is tainted or safe.
We live in a time where available technological solutions can streamline national and global shipping logistics while helping to protect people’s lives. Blockchain technology is the way of the future, and we will all be healthier and have a little more peace of mind because of it.