Around 2017, Bitcoin and the cryptocurrency craze exploded across the internet and popular media. At its core, cryptocurrency promised a new and decentralized financial system that could exist without banks, governance, or other entities keeping track of transactions. While cryptocurrency in itself is rather interesting, what has really begun to tickle our fancy is the technology that actually enables cryptocurrency: blockchain.
A blockchain is…just as it sounds…a chain…of blocks. But each of these blocks is essentially a small packet of data that details a transaction (like one company selling an ingredient to another). The way this chain is set up makes the data within each block impossible to alter. What’s more, the chain is not stored in one single place; instead, information is stored and continuously updated across various sections of the chain as it gets longer (as one ingredient moves to join other ingredients in a food product). In this, blockchain actually has many applications far beyond virtual coins. But why are people geeking out about the application of this technology in the food industry?
One word: traceability.
OK, cool, but why is traceability so important?
Traceability is the ability to follow a food, or an ingredient in a food, back to its original source. Given how incredibly gigantic and global our food system is though, traceability is no easy task. Think about a food you really like- let’s take a peppermint hot chocolate mix, since we’re in the holiday spirit. The peppermint pieces inside this hot chocolate mix probably did not come from the same food company that sells it (or if you were to make a mix for a friend, you may have sourced many ingredients from different companies). The peppermint flavor in these pieces is likely sourced from yet another company who likely did not grow the herb the flavor was derived from. The flow of ingredients from the farm, into a food item, onto the store shelf, and into your home is known as the food supply chain.
I have asked Lily Yang and Matt Teegarden from the Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience site to provide a younger perspective to my site. We are hoping that this post will lead to greater cooperation between the two sites.
Tracing things all the way through the food supply chain can be incredibly time consuming and complicated. Currently, most traceability information is not collected and stored in an easily accessible and centralized place. Because it is not all located in one place, right now, it can be very difficult to quickly trace a food or ingredient back to its original source.
Imagine a situation like the recent E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce. While the CDC was able to identify that romaine lettuce was the carrier of the harmful bacteria, for a while, no one knew from where this romaine lettuce came. Without a solid answer and just in time for Thanksgiving, the CDC’s initial advisory that ALL romaine lettuce be thrown away was very general. Let’s be real, though, who actually wastes valuable stomach space on salad at Thanksgiving dinner? The process of tracing the tainted lettuce back to its original source (aka: where it was grown) is difficult because not only are there more than 1500 lettuce farms in the US, but, even a simple product like lettuce can pass through many hands (distributors, farms, etc.) before it makes it to the store.
Eventually, the CDC was able to trace the outbreak source to a small region and is currently evaluating several farms there. In light of the scale and severity of this (and other) outbreaks, there has been a push for enhanced traceability in the food supply chain using…you guessed it: blockchain! Blockchain’s benefits to traceback and securing the food system has become so popular that both Forbes and Wired have addressed the issues as it pertains to food outbreaks and making our food system safe!
How could blockchain enhance traceability and what does that mean to me?
First off, blockchain has the potential to simplify food traceability by virtue of collecting data in one system that is mutually owned by all participants in the chain. This allows all parts of the food supply or food system to “talk” to one another, creating a more harmonious, transparent, and accountable system: from the grower, to the packing house, to the distributor, to the markets, all the way up to YOU as the consumer. And because all the information on how items travel through the supply chain is centralized and linked together, tracing something back to any point in the supply chain can take just minutes instead of days or weeks.
Is blockchain being used in the food industry now?
Because it is an emerging technology, blockchain is still making its way into actual practice for many companies. One company that has widely publicised their commitment to blockchain is, Walmart. Through its new Food Safety Initiative, Walmart is working very closely with IBM Food Trust, to develop traceability capabilities (fun rhyme!) utilizing blockchain technology. This is actually a huge deal because Walmart is starting to demand that their food suppliers, like the companies that provide their stores with leafy greens, use blockchain-enabled technology themselves. Other food-related start-ups, organizations, and initiatives like Goodr, Uber Eats, new food technologies, and the IFT Global Food Traceability Center are promoting and using blockchain technologies. .
Despite all its benefits, the integration of blockchain into the food industry still has a ways to go. As with most technologies, there is always an adaptability curve. Most importantly, this technology needs to remain economically viable and also attainably accessible by all players throughout the supply chain. Nonetheless, blockchain shows incredible promise to enhance the way the food industry does business and improve the end product for the consumer.
You can also watch the now FDA Commissioner (but previously head of safety at Walmart), Frank Yiannias, discuss the Walmart Food Safety Initiative.
Matt Teegarden is a founding member of Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience. He recently finished his Ph.D. at Ohio State and now works as a Food Scientist in Columbus, OH.
Lily Yang is a post-doctoral researcher at Virginia Tech. Like Matt, she is also founding member and contributor of the science-based media communication channel, Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience (@DontEatPseudo). Her research focus specifically develops science communication and food safety programs for diverse populations.
Next week: Food bits and pieces as we move into 2019