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Keeping it fresh with blockchain

04 January 2020

Ramesh Gopinath explains the role that blockchain technology has to play in ensuring groceries arrive with the consumer still at optimal freshness. 

The food supply chain is an immensely complex ecosystem of individuals and organisations working together to deliver products around the world safely and at optimal freshness. It’s the reason why consumers can walk into a restaurant or grocery store just about anywhere, anytime and find an abundant variety of fresh, high-quality food. 

This invisible backbone is an astounding feat of logistical planning and engineering. Unfortunately, despite its sophistication, the food supply chain is far from perfect. Today, roughly 1.3 billion tons of food are lost or wasted annually – accounting for a staggering one-third of global production. Food waste costs developed nations approximately $680 billion per year, with another $310 billion in losses incurred in the developing world.  

To a large extent, these problems stem from a lack of tracking and visibility. Like many industries, the food sector still uses outdated paper-based processes for tracking the flow of goods, making it extremely difficult for stakeholders across the supply chain to get a complete picture of a product’s journey. Without easy access to that data, food often fails to arrive at its destination within the optimal freshness window. And with freshness measured in days even a few inefficiencies can quickly snowball into a great deal of wasted food. 

Fortunately, much of the food industry is entering a period digitalisation. For example, new technology is enabling Golden State Foods, US-based foodservice supplier, to seamlessly track beef from the manufacturing plant all the way to restaurants, providing instant visibility for stakeholders across the supply chain and helping ensure freshness. 

Golden State, which ships to 120,000 restaurants in more than 40 countries around the world, developed a tracking platform leveraging RFID tags, Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and blockchain technology. 

How it works
Here’s how it works. First, each individual case of beef is tagged with an RFID sticker. This serves as its unique identifier as it travels through the supply chain. Next, a network of IoT sensors tracks temperature at each phase of the journey – from the processing facility, to the truck, all the way to the end point. By cross-referencing that data with an RFID number, stakeholders can validate the temperature of an individual case of beef at each step of the product lifecycle, right down to the minute. This becomes particularly important as the industry moves away from frozen to fresh beef. 

Finally, blockchain provides a robust orchestration layer that not only aggregates all of this data on a secure and transparent platform, but also enables operators to connect disparate dots that can often lead to smarter business decisions. For example, using its blockchain tracking solution, Golden State is able to access a single-pane-of-glass view that displays every batch of beef currently in its processing facilities. IoT and RFID data allows the system to identify which units are most at risk of spoiling and determine which pallets to ship first. If a case has been sitting out for too long or kept at too high a temperature, the system will recommend simply not sending it downstream to avoid needless shipping costs. 

Though its blockchain tracking system is still in the pilot stage, Golden State hopes it will soon become an indispensable tool in its day-to-day operations. For the first time, the company has a holistic view of its products as they make their way across the global food supply chain. Moving forward, Golden State’s blockchain platform will continue to support the company’s mission to deliver consistently fresh, high-quality foods to customers around the world. 

Ramesh Gopinath is VP, Blockchain Solutions and Research at IBM.

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