It’s been just over 18 months since we first discussed the idea of blockchain for food traceability.
As we head into 2020, what’s changed? Are Australian suppliers and retailers any closer to using blockchain to improve food traceability? Where will it go next?
Before we dive in, here’s a quick recap:
What is food traceability?
Food traceability is the ability to track any food through all stages of production, processing and distribution. When an issue is identified, it can be traced back.
This sounds easy but consider the amount of food in the supply chain at any time. The cost of implementing traceability becomes overwhelming.
That’s where blockchain comes in.
What is blockchain?
Most people think of bitcoin and crypto-currency, but blockchain has an applicability to food traceability too.
Blockchain is a digitised, decentralised ledger of transactions. Think of it as a system of recordkeeping that is open to users in the virtual space. It’s constantly growing in chronological order, so it allows users to keep track of transactions simultaneously and in real-time.
When a piece of permissioned information (or “block”) is entered into the chain, other computers in the network are notified. This makes falsifying information very difficult, because the change of information is open for all to see.
This underlying technology can be used for practically anything.
One of the benefits of blockchain is that the information is out in the open, creating greater transparency to changes. With increased accessibility comes more accuracy and trust.
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Another benefit is that no single group controls it.
The decentralised nature of blockchain lends itself well to the decentralised nature of the food system.
Digitising food records isn’t new, but how blockchain does it is very different. It offers an open way to capture information around the world without needing a central authority to verify it.
That’s why blockchain has gained so much traction for food traceability.
Real-life examples: how blockchain is being used for food traceability
The application of blockchain has come a long way in the past year. Take a look at what these businesses are doing:
Blockchain example 1: Walmart
The most famous example of blockchain in action for the food chain is Walmart. Since 2016, Walmart has been working with IBM to implement blockchain as part of new food-safety requirements for its suppliers. For mangoes in the US, the time needed to trace their provenance went from seven days to a lightning-fast 2.2 seconds using blockchain.
In the wake of the Romaine lettuce E.coli scare, Walmart recently asked suppliers of leafy greens, including lettuce and spinach, to trace their products all the way back to the farm using blockchain technology. Suppliers are expected to have all these systems in place by mid 2020.
And here’s how US agricultural conglomerate Cargill Inc. used blockchain technology to trace an individual turkey from the farm to table.
Blockchain example 2: Australian beef exports to China
The Chinese cannot get enough of Australian beef. China is currently the biggest buyer of Australian beef, with exports up 73% on last year.
But there’s a problem: every second kilogram of meat sold in China that is labelled as “Australian” is actually not Australian beef.
That’s why Australian blockchain firm BeefLedger is launching a food-provenance platform.
The token-driven platform allows anyone to participate in the network by purchasing BEEF tokens. Importers, retailers and wholesalers can then use the token for payments of beef shipments.
Blockchain can store all the information related to the cattle, and Chinese consumers can see where the cattle were raised, their health history, transport details and processing information on the meat.
The technology can also secure data to track the transport conditions and more accurately predict shelf life.
Blockchain example 3: Tracing beef steaks
Here’s another beef example: in March 2019, Drakes Supermarket partnered with Australia’s largest 100% family-owned meat processor, Thomas Foods International, to trace beef steaks to their farm-of-origin using blockchain technology.
Like Walmart, the companies are using IBM’s Food Trust to upload data into a shared platform and map the lifecycle of products, such as steaks, as they move through the supply chain.
The technology reduces traceability times from three days to just three seconds.
As Simon Tamke from Thomas Foods International said, “By maintaining the individual data relating to each product instead of moving to data about grouped products, we are achieving a greater understanding of how each food item is moving through the supply chain. This added level of transparency and verifiability will reinforce customers’ and consumers’ confidence in the provenance of our product and is made possible by blockchain technology.”
Blockchain example 4: Coffee beans
How can consumers know where their coffee comes from? Starbucks has launched a bean-to-cup tracking system and mobile app using Microsoft’s Azure-based blockchain service. The technology lets customers trace the journey of their coffee beans from when a grower packages them to when they hit Starbucks’ counters.
Another blockchain solution to improve traceability throughout the coffee industry is BeanLedger. Founder and coffee roaster Amelia Franklin partnered with Queensland’s Griffith University for advice on ethics, governance, and sustainability.
Will 2020 be the year of blockchain?
There’s little doubt that blockchain can be a game changer for food traceability. But there are still lots of hurdles to be overcome. What are the standards going to be? What are the confidentiality and privacy concerns? Who governs the data and process? But with innovative companies ready to take the leap and seize the opportunities presented by the technology, the potential for transformation in 2020 is colossal.
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Image credits: iStock/ Vectorios2016 (main); iStock / Anna Skvortsova (2nd)