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Get ready to join the blockchain gang

06 July 2018

Having read about blockchain in a plethora of recent food-industry reports, Suzanne Gill set out to find out more about the relevance of this latest buzzword for the food industry. 

The search for information about blockchain and its relevance to the food industry led me very quickly to the door of IBM which is currently working with a group of international growers, food processors, wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers and retailers to develop a blockchain platform designed to help tackle a variety of global, industry-wide issues including traceability, food fraud, and food waste.

The globalisation of food production has made the supply chain longer and more complex which has resulted in the journey from farm-to-fork becoming less transparent. Traditionally every link in the food supply chain will keep its own set of records, using a variety of disparate ledger solutions. Most links in the chain are only ever expected to share this information with their immediate suppliers and customers. However, this hotchpotch of different ledgers means that tracing a product back to its source can result in costly and lengthy investigations in the event of a problem arising. If an origination point cannot be identified, a particular product could be completely banned from store shelves when only a single batch may have actually been affected. 

Regulators, growers, processors, distributors, suppliers, retailers and consumers would all benefit if delays and waste could be reduced. For example, if farm origination details, batch numbers, processing data, expiration dates and shipping details could be digitally recorded it may become possible to verify the history, location and status of a food product. This end-to-end traceability would improve transparency and efficiency throughout the food supply chain. For example, when a retailer becomes aware of an issue with a product on its shelves, if the condition of that product had been digitally recorded throughout its journey from farm to fork, network participants could view its entire history to quickly triangulate on the root of the problem. If necessary, a selective recall of products from that specific batch could then be executed in an efficient manner.

Richard Stockley, head of blockchain UK & Ireland at IBM, explained how blockchain could make this scenario a reality. “Blockchain is a digital ledger that offers a unique way of sharing data between different entities in a business network. Put simply, it enables companies to have a shared ledger so a typical buyer and seller value chain would all be able to share a single ledger of the truth, that they can all access. Data is shared in a distributed fashion so everyone would have the same copy. There is governance associated with how transactions are added to the ledger which ensures that the information is accurate. 

An immutable solution
“The most important element of a blockchain solution is its immutability. Once a transaction has been added it cannot be deleted or changed. Errors can be corrected, but there will be a permanent record made of both the original entry and the correction, giving visibility of all amendments throughout the chain and a strict data orderability.” 

Stockley went on to explain that the levels of governance which define the conditions for adding records can be specified to make them appropriate to the network, so it is possible to limit access to some information to ensure that competitive trading partners on a single network are not able to see each others sensitive transactional information. This same feature can make regulatory and audit requirements much easier as it makes it possible to grant open access to regulators to allow them to quickly find the information they need.

Wisely, IBM has taken an open-source approach to its blockchain solution – IBM Food Trust – which is built upon Hyperledger Fabric, a Linux Foundation project, started to support open collaboration and development of blockchain-distributed ledgers. The architectural construct of the building blocks of the blockchain are defined by a community of over 200 members and not by any single commercial player.  

Food Trust
IBM is nearing completion of the development of Food Trust, which is a cloud-based, software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution built on the IBM Blockchain Platform to provide a high level of tamper-resistant protection for food transaction data. It directly connects participants through a permissioned, permanent and shared record of food origin details, processing data, shipping details and more. 

Food Trust was borne out of a pilot project undertaken with Walmart. Stockley explained in more depth: “Food traceability tests using Walmart’s existing systems to trace back a packet of mangoes to its farm of origin took six days to navigate through 16 farms, two packing houses, three brokers, two import warehouses and a processing facility. We then joined together all the different parts of the mango supply chain using a blockchain-enabled solution and using this solution the time taken to trace the mangoes to their origin was reduced to just 2.2 seconds. Admittedly this was under test conditions, but the differential was huge and it got Walmart got very excited about the potential for blockchain.” Today IBM’s Food Trust collaboration programme includes companies such as Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Unilever and Walmart.

Food Trust is currently still in a limited availability phase and is being hardened through collaboration with the core project participants but it is hoped that the solution will become available to the rest of the food industry in September. “We expect the platform to resemble an app store – with different bundles of functionality targeted towards different users and different types of solutions,” said Stockley.

In most instances Stockley predicts that blockchain will operate as a backend system within the food factory – acting as a silver thread that knits together and links up data between different participants. SMEs are most likely to implement it via a light-touch web portal with dashboard data sitting alongside existing systems, but not integrated into, or affecting, existing legacy solutions.

Conclusion
Blockchain is already starting to improve collaboration, trust and transparency along the food industry supply chain through the collaborative work being undertaken by those involved in using IBM Food Trust and, over time, it does look set to provide a powerful tool to help increase the traceability and safety of food products. While there are still many hurdles to be overcome to bring complete transparency to the supply chain – for products that can contain multiple ingredients for example – it may just be what is needed to regain consumer trust in the provenance of the food they are buying and eating.

So, while adoption of blockchain-based systems are not going to become a reality overnight, as many recent food industry reports have predicted, the technology is really starting to gain traction in the food sector and it is vital to be aware of its progress and to be ready to embrace this latest data revolution. 


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