Five people in the U.K. died this week after eating sandwiches contaminated with listeria, a dangerous bacterial infection. Three weeks after the outbreak, the infected sandwiches are off the shelves, but the manufacturer, Good Food Chain, said in a statement Friday that the underlying cause is “still unclear.”
Hardly surprising: top players in the food industry tell Decrypt that most companies don’t have the software to handle food traceability issues. "Many large companies still rely on paper, pencils, spreadsheets, and whiteboards," says Sean O’Leary, the CEO of a food-traceability software company, FoodLogiQ.
That’s a real issue for the industry. A recent PWC study estimated that food fraud costs the industry up to $40 billion annually. And in the U.S. alone, contaminated food leads to 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths every year.
One solution? Blockchain’s immutable ledger, of course. Platforms like FoodLogiq, IBM Food Trust, ripe.io and TE-FOOD have experimented with blockchain systems that record every bushel, seed and nut grown, ensuring that only the finest ingredients reach your plate.
The garbage in, garbage out problem
TE-FOOD is starting to use blockchain to process over 18,000 pigs and 200,000 chickens every day. Many of its clients are in Vietnam, where fraud is possible at every step in the supply chain. Farmers might falsify vaccination certificates, animals might be pumped full of water and sedatives on the way to the slaughterhouse, and customers might pay extra money for beef marketed as premium Australian beef, when it’s actually cheap Cambodian beef. Tag the cows on the block, however, and they can tell the true story about your food within seconds.
Blockchain can’t solve the “garbage in, garbage out’ problem”; if useless information is stored on the blockchain, then the story that blockchain tells is worthless. But in combination with other technologies, like IOT sensors or fraud detection algorithms, blockchain could make the whole story fit together.
The result? Lower food wastage and increased food safety. With conventional food outbreaks, authorities try and trace the contaminated product down the food supply chain. “As you get further back down the supply chain, the geographical area becomes larger and larger, as these guys don’t know where the product came from,” says Stuart Bashford, Digital Officer at Bühler Group, which is responsible for providing food for approximately 2 billion people each year, and has partnered with Microsoft to develop blockchain solutions for its produce. With blockchain, Bashford says this process could be cut down to “seconds, rather than weeks”.
Bashford’s opinion—that blockchain massively reduces the time it takes to identify and quarantine contaminated food—isn’t shared by everyone. “I think that’s wrong,” says Sean O’Leary, CEO of FoodLogiq, a platform which facilitates the supply chains for over 16,000 American companies, including Whole Foods and Subway. “We've been doing that with every single product with our customers, and we've been doing that for a while now", O’Leary tells Decrypt. If a product sold in Whole Foods is contaminated, O’Leary can have shelf stackers across the country remove the defective product within hours.”
FoodLogiq researched the technology heavily, but scrapped plans once they realized that blockchain solutions look a lot like traditional databases, but are more expensive, slower, and harder to deploy. In the U.S., large food companies often want to keep their recipes secret, and wouldn’t benefit from making the data public. Besides, they trust the companies around them and are subject to intense scrutiny by the FTC, the FDA and the CDC.
But O’Leary thinks that the technology might have some use in the fish industry: “Folks want to know that white fish is either cod or carp, and so having the ability to publicly track that provides another layer of certification”.
Blockchain - isn't that just a more expensive database?
For now, though, O’Leary isn’t backing the technology. As Kirk Nelson, from AgBiome--a biological fungicide producer that piloted FoodLogiq’s short-lived blockchain technology--pointed out, the food industry is incredibly complex, already using “very sophisticated and mature barcode scanning systems”.
But does it even matter if blockchain’s any good? A major benefit of blockchain, says Bryan Hitchcock, an executive director at the Institute of Food Technologists, is that blockchain generates interest in the food traceability industry, particularly from top talent outside of the industry.
Even if companies don’t end up using a blockchain system, interested parties could make use of other emerging technology made possible in the past few years by advances in computational power, reduction in storage capabilities, and advances in sensors, all of which produced massive amounts of data.
If not blockchain, Thomas Burke, a food traceability and safety scientist at the IFT tells Decrypt that the next food fights will be fought with the rollout of 5G and the increased use of IOT devices, which drastically increase the amount of networked data.
“We’re just getting started,” says Hitchcock.