Can blockchain technology help to make our food safer?

The food we routinely buy and consume often racks up the travel miles before reaching the supermarket shelves. What’s now on our plates has become more diverse, with exotic ingredients and raw materials readily available. Despite broadening our palettes, the globalised food trade has also made supply chains increasingly complex. This makes it harder to track and trace product origin and determine how many times a product has changed hands on its journey from farm to fork. And, as food safety scandals and health scares regularly end in collapsing public confidence, it’s no surprise that consumers’ confidence in food products and brands can be quite brittle.

Responding to the potential fragility of consumer confidence, a group of ten food producers and retailers – among them Nestlé, Unilever and Walmart –recently announced a collaboration with IBM Blockchain to highlight the most urgent issues in the global food supply chain and to work together on exploring blockchain as a tool to identify sources of contamination in food. But what is blockchain and how exactly can it be used in the food sector?

Some of you may have already heard of blockchain, most likely in the context of the technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. A blockchain is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. Each block typically contains a so-called ‘hash pointer,’ essentially a form of digital signature, which links to a previous block, a timestamp and transaction data. Once data is entered, the blockchain is designed to be resistant to retrospective changes, which makes it a potential vehicle to record and secure sensitive information.  This is why it has taken off in the case of Bitcoin, where it serves as an open, distributed ledger, recording peer-to-peer transactions efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent manner.

Whilst blockchain has long been heralded as the next big thing in finance, other industries are increasingly looking at potential benefits of the technology to securely transfer or store data. A notable example of a rapidly evolving field is healthcare, where companies are looking to develop blockchain-based applications to make the exchange of health data and medical records more efficient and secure.

Blockchain technology could enable food producers, providers, and consumers to trace products to their source, thereby helping to ensure transparency and efficiency in the supply chain, making it easier to trace potential sources of contamination, and helping to maintain consumer trust. Usually, we can establish where a product came from and where it ends up – but what happens in the middle of the supply chain is more difficult to determine.

The American start-up Ripe this year launched a pilot project on a farm to track, step-by-step, the ripeness, colour and sugar content of tomatoes.  Sensors recorded environmental factors, such as light, humidity and air temperature. Another set of sensors then logged the conditions present when the tomatoes were shipped and stored. In this case, blockchain technology was used to store and share data, making the supply chain more easily manageable and transparent. Beyond quality, the sensor and blockchain system can also prove where a product came from, which is particularly useful in the case of products registered as having protected geographical status. The protected geographical status highlights regional and traditional foods whose authentic origin can be guaranteed. Examples of such foods include traditional Cumberland sausages, Stilton cheese, Armagh Bramley apples and Scotch whisky.

The technology could prove advantageous not just to producers and businesses, but also consumers. Walmart has now announced that it is seeking to trial a system in China, which enables consumers to trace the entire supply chain of the food they buy by simply scanning barcodes with their smartphones. China is an ideal place to test this technology: food scares are common and many people are anxious about the food they buy. Additionally, the Chinese are among the most tech-savvy consumers in the world.

Just recently, the Fipronil egg scandal meant that millions of eggs were pulled from supermarket shelves across the European Union. Fipronil, an insecticide banned for use on animals destined for human consumption, was found in eggs originating from the Netherlands, one of Europe’s biggest egg producers. In cases such as this, a blockchain-backed tracking system could help to determine quickly on which farms contamination occurred, establishing the exact point of contamination more efficiently and helping to ensure consumer confidence when buying eggs as they can immediately see where the products’ origin.

Could blockchain technology also ring in a new era of low regulation and less state intervention in the supply chain – or will it achieve exactly the opposite? The ethos behind blockchain is to remove ‘middle men’ in transactions and provide a trusted platform for ‘peer to peer’ exchanges. With consumers being able to scan barcodes on food with their smartphones to find out its exact production circumstances and its origin, does this make product labelling rules obsolete? This poses the question of which information needs (and can) to be recorded on the blockchain. Legislators will need to ensure that certain additives will be logged when added to a product, so consumers know what they eat. And how will this translate into practicality – not every consumer might have access to a smartphone or is confident in using an app. Could this lead to a two-tier system with added information for more tech-savvy consumers vs older, less tech-savvy consumers, or those who cannot afford compatible smartphones?

In times of increased global trade and data connectivity, systems such as this could help re-establish consumer trust in global trade. Blockchain technology may leave you baffled for now, but it is worth following developments in the field closely – especially as some sort of regulatory response seems likely sooner rather than later.