London, UNITED KINGDOM – Did that chicken you just buy at the supermarket grow in an overcrowded factory pen or was it free to roam, eating only the choicest grains and generally free from antibiotics and other genetic modification? If you’re the sort of person who cares about the life of the bird, that Carerefour, the massive French grocery chain has chicken to sell you. Utilizing the power of the blockchain, every chicken that it sells under its house brand will have its life tracked on the blockchain, allowing customers to know the life story of their purchase by simply scanning the label with their smartphones.
Although Bitcoin makes bigger headlines, a revolution in the food that we eat is quietly being served up to ensure greater safety through the blockchain, the underlying technology that serves up cryptocurrencies, is now coming for your chicken as well. As an immutable ledger, the theory goes that a chicken, or any other produce for that matter can be branded with a QR code and have it entered onto the blockchain, to be tracked until the time it arrives chilled and ready for purchase at your local supermarket. Already, giants Nestle, Dole Food, Unilever and Tyson Foods are working with Walmart to implement a blockchain platform built by IBM and JD.com, China;s second biggest e-commerce site. According to Frank Yiannas, vice president for food safety and health at Walmart,
“Blockchain will do for food traceability what the internet did for communication.”
There’s only one slight issue with that assertion. While the public blockchain, the stuff that Bitcoin and Ethereum are built on are transparent, because no single entity controls the verification process of the ledger, it is verified in a decentralized manner, with the transaction history open for anyone to view, a hyperledger, of the sort that IBM builds is inherently private, which means there’s no guarantee that it is tamper-proof or even accurate for that matter. Mitchell Weinberg, CEO of Inscatech, which investigates food sourcing for evidence of fraud echoes this sentiment,
“Wouldn’t criminals know how to cheat the blockchain? How could it help with anything fluid or ground-up or chemical in nature? Those can be adulterated and blockchain will never know how, when, or by whom.”
But that doesn’t mean that we should leave the situation as status quo. In China in 2008, at least six babies died and over 300,000 fell ill after consuming infant milk formula which had been laced with melamine, a white crystalline compound used in the manufacture of plastic. Since then, wood pulp has been blended with Parmesan cheese, horse meat has been passed off as ground beef and plastic mixed into frozen chicken nuggets. Not to mention the norovirus, salmonella and listeria outbreaks and a cogent argument for using the blockchain as opposed to doing nothing can be made.
Yiannas is confident that the blockchain will improve food safety and estimates that for every 1 percent reduction in foodborne disease in the United States, would benefit the economy by US$700 million from increased productivity, due to less days lost at work. Health dangers aside, food recalls also cost the food industry over US$49 billion a year, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which also estimates that at least 10 percent of all food purchased in the U.S. has been adulterated and poses a health hazard.
At least with blockchain, food producers can narrow down the source of an outbreak or taint more quickly before it spreads through the food distribution system. Once food hits the supermarkets blockchain data, backed by sensors and computer models could help better assess the shelf life of produce. With more data, food producers and distributors could also run through predictive models that map the ideal storage temperature to extend the shelf life of fresh produce. While blockchain does not necessarily provide the silver bullet for food safety, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Over time, it may be possible for companies to convert their private blockchains into public blockchains so that anyone can see the genuine source of the food. Such a measure would not only enhance food safety, it would also more equitably reward farmers who have been adhering to best practices.