Food supply chains across the world are becoming ever more interlinked and complex. The complexity of these networks is not however the greatest challenge for those wanting to know the origin or location of any particular food product.
The bigger challenge comes from the often multiple steps of transformation that food products undergo, the speed with which these are carried out and the journeys that the product subsequently follow (often across networks that are unaligned and unknown to each other).
At any one time in restaurants and food retail outlets across the world, there are millions of food items made with ingredients that cannot be fully sourced, i.e., traced back to origin. In a time such as ours, the ramifications of this should be clear to all. Guaranteeing the safety of food product that moves within these ever increasingly complex networks is at the moment an impossibility. With the rate at which the transportation of food products and materials across unmapped networks increasing daily, so also unfortunately does the level of risk.
If we are to have ‘food security’, in the sense of knowing the true origin of all products and raw materials, we will need to develop systems that can successfully map not just the complexity of food logistic networks but also enable the noting of any intervention along the full line of supply (at any stage in the product’s life). In order, for instance, for accurate recalls to be possible, systems must now be fine grained enough to help pin point precisely where any change in the products’ ‘nature’ may have occurred, whether this relate to production stage, temperature or shelf-life.
Blockchain: Traceability and Connectivity
The problems are multiple. How do we solve, for instance, the challenge to full traceability when faced with: a.) increased network complexity, b.) product transfiguration and c.) the journey that products follow across across networks and systems that do not speak with one another? Many are beginning to think that blockchain technology might form a key part of the solution.
If blockchain technology could be deployed to trace food product across all supply chains and businesses, from source (materials) to final product (food item), how would this be done? The explanation for this comes from the logic behind the blockchain itself.
Think of the blockchain as a series of interrelated blocks that trace transactions and assets without disruption. Simply put, it offers a way of timestamping any particular item and leaving a trace of that event that cannot be removed or destroyed. Any alteration of any kind, which alters the nature of the item, would invoke a new timestamp marking the change. This timestamp would be automatically added to the log of the item, effectively creating a historical record of the item that can be read without ambiguity. The suitability of this technology for food products should not be underestimated. With the right technology, the timestamp can be picked up from the product at any point during its journey across the supply chain, providing a wealth of data to the reader. The usefulness of this breakthrough technology has not been lost to the larger businesses in the foodservice sector.
Walmart is carrying out a pilot test of this new technology in conjunction with IBM and Tsinghua University in Beijing. Their hope is that it will improve our understanding of the way food is produced, transported and dispensed across China by “harnessing the power of blockchain technology designed to generate transparency and efficiency in supply chain record-keeping.”
When deployed with the right complementary technology, blockchain could form part of a Food Management System that eliminates the need for manual inspection altogether. In doing so, entry errors and all associated false data is also eliminated. Food products could be accurately tracked from farm to table, providing producers and consumers alike with a host of useful and relevant data including: product number, batch number, ingredients list, factory and processing data, expiration date, storage temperature, transportation details etc. As previously mentioned, any change or alteration to the item could automatically be added to the blockchain.
We should note that Walmart’s trial is being conducted across a closed supply chain but as mentioned above, the real challenge arises when we wish to track items across different and often unaligned supply chains. Blockchain requires that each alteration to the ‘block’, each new capture of information, must be agreed by all members of the network. Only when there has been agreement is the permanent record altered to admit the new information. This core truth of the logic of blockchain points to an interesting conundrum and could lead to an even more radical change, i.e., a fundamental change in the way we think about food and any other item we purchase.
Blockchain is enabling end-to-end traceability and transparency…the future of food safety systems
Blockchain could become the core logic of a new language, one that allows end-to-end traceability and full transparency of the history of any item, but only if the language is standardised and open to all. Blockchain by its nature is a system that universalises and rejects the admission of intermediaries that would seek to ‘own’ or ‘manage’ part of the story of any item.
Perhaps the most radical change that the adoption of blockchain could usher in is the emergence of true transparency, in which individuals or ‘consumers’ have access to the full story of any product. For instance, in the case of food, they would know where the food products’ ingredients come from, they would know when and where the product was made, they would know what temperature the product was held at, they might even know what its carbon foot print is. Having access to information like this will inevitably inform and empower individuals. It could also change forever the way we see ‘product’.