Blockchain and Food Safety


Blockchain and Food Safety

Navenia Wellington

Thursday, February 18, 2021

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One element of a food safety system is ensuring that raw material and products can be tracked through all stages of production and distribution. Food traceability is also linked to the process of product recall, which is the ability to quickly identify concerned products and withdraw them quickly from the market with urgency. Sadly, one of the things that thwart the effectiveness of a recall or a food-borne illness investigation is poor traceability/tracking. This is also linked to a lack of transparency in the supply chain. However, there is an emerging technology that is being seen as applicable to food traceability and by extension food safety: the technology of blockchain.

Most individuals may be familiar with this term in the context of the banking industry in reference to the digital currency bitcoin and may then wonder as to its applicability to food safety. It is applicable because at its root, blockchain is a record-keeping/database technology. Blockchain here, however, differs from regular databases in that it stores data in blocks that are chained together in a chronological order. The selling point for blockchain is the use of a decentralised, secure ledger that provides transparency on country of origin since it is shared by all people in the supply chain. Information stored in this format is irreversible.

In food safety, the traceability and recall systems rely heavily on a record-keeping database. This includes storing details on suppliers and their products, customer product supplied, linking records to test results, in-process and finished products. However, the current situation is paper-based centralised databases and information can be changed at will; this is not perceived as transparent across the supply chain. In addition to lack of transparency, the current system is also seen as inefficient as data that could improve efficiencies are locked in disparate data management systems.

Blockchain is being looked at as the efficiency solution. In fact, in November 2020 when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was speaking on the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, it spoke about “leveraging technology and other tools to create a safer and more digital, traceable food system”, in reference to technologies such as blockchain. Blockchain is seen as being able to improve response efforts and assist authorities to advise consumers, implement a recall efficiently to avoid high levels of impact of food-borne illness. With blockchain technology, food safety infractions can be linked to a specific farm, specific manufacturer and a specific distributor.

Walmart, the retail corporation, can be looked at as a case study. It worked with IBM for a food safety blockchain solution and now requires all suppliers of leafy green vegetables to upload their data to that system.

Are we there yet? No. Is this something we need to look into? Most definitely. The best takeaway from this article is the importance of record keeping, information management and transparency for traceability and recall.

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