Is Blockchain the Magic Bullet for Food Safety? An Introduction...
By: Zain Bali
Tracking information is important to food safety regulators and businesses because it helps identify when and where products have been. Blockchain technology is a new tool that can track products more efficiently and effectively than bar or QR codes. The potential benefits of blockchain technology for record keeping in food supply chains have been a clear and consistent message for years (Fontanazza, 2019; How Blockchain, 2019; Plaven, 2020). Using blockchain would allow for immediate trace-back when a contaminated product is found. And it can identify the source of the food in hours instead of the weeks it now takes. So, what is blockchain? What are its uses across the food industry? What is a food safety perspective and how could blockchain assist in product tracking and by extension outbreak investigations?
To explain blockchain, I will start with Bitcoin, which was believed to be the future of money just a few years ago. In 2017, this electronic currency, once valued in pennies, peaked at $17,000 a coin (NDTV Profit Team. 2018). The usefulness of cryptocurrency was obvious to many - no bank or government could charge transaction fees and it is impossible to counterfeit. This transparency created high levels of trust among those that used it. The blockchain technology that undergirded Bitcoin paired cryptography and internet networks to create an information system that is secure, decentralized, and displays transactions in real time.
To understand how blockchain works, it might help to imagine how information is shared in transportation systems. For example, if you are a tourist in Chicago, you can use one machine to buy a $20 three-day pass. This pass can be used on all three systems in Chicago: Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra (Chicago’s commuter railroad), and Pace (suburban bus system). The machine prints out a blue card with big white letters “Ventra'' which is a fare system that bridges the gap among the information and finance systems of CTA, Pace, and Metra. Ventra uses RFID technology embedded in its pass to enable use of all three of these services. Ventra is also the middleman that facilitates payment from your banking institution to the transportation services. At time of purchase, Ventra processes the payment by sending a request to your bank. The bank’s systems verify this transaction, create an internal record of purchase, and reimburse Ventra which splits the funds between three systems. When all is said and done, five different electronic systems have participated in translating or processing information for your use of transportation. Each system has its own set of security controls, and information processes that incur administrative cost and risk.
Blockchain cuts out the middleman. In blockchain, the original request for a ticket, rather than going to a middleman like Ventra, is processed through a series of “nodes” connecting the three systems’ information systems together that verify the transaction. The computers and servers among the three transportation systems create a shared ledger with each information system using a “key” generated by known algorithms dedicated for this network. When a new user is processed and status verified, the system creates a “block” in a secure chain that stores data in a chronological and linear fashion visible to every participant (Figure 1).
Figure 1: This graphic shows how a blockchain is created in the network.
Source: Blockchain Infographics: The Most Comprehensive Collection. (2019, November 08). Retrieved May 16, 2020, from https://blockgeeks.com/blockchain-infographics/
Blockchain’s potential application in food safety has attracted attention from government agencies, food retailers, and consumer groups. In 2018, FDA introduced it’s “New Era of Smarter Food Safety'' which celebrated blockchain’s potential for improving product tracking during an outbreak. Currently, when an outbreak occurs, investigators interview individuals who have been sickened to identify suspect foods. Investigators then request records from businesses who produce, handle, or process the suspected product. They use these information sources to determine the root cause of the outbreak. This is a very difficult task because the food supply system is vast and mostly working in silos rather than with systems that easily share data.
For example, in April 2018, there was an outbreak of E. Coli 0157:H7 that caused 210 illnesses, 96 hospitalizations and 5 deaths. Three and a half weeks after the first confirmed illness, investigators finally identified romaine lettuce from a single farm in the Yuma growing region as the source of the outbreak. In the intervening time, the government could only recommend consumers avoid romaine lettuce and businesses recalled millions of heads of lettuce resulting in a reduced consumer trust and economic loss. Part of the reason these investigations take so long is because of the time it takes a business to compile records of their product. Even in the best cases, sometimes a company could not confirm a product's location because it used different record keeping technologies/methods from its business partners. Depending on maturation of their traceability systems, it can take days to weeks.
Following the outbreak, in an open letter to its leafy green suppliers, Walmart highlighted the need for enhanced food traceability to reduce investigation times, and conduct more thorough “root cause analysis to inform future prevention efforts, and the implication and associated-losses of unaffected products that are inaccurately linked to an outbreak can be avoided” (Walmart Traceability, 2018). In December 2018, Walmart identified 25 products for blockchain use and announced that all suppliers of leafy greens will be required to use the technology by 2019 under their new Traceability Initiative for Leafy Greens (Smith, M. 2018). This decision was motivated by high profile outbreaks like the one above and Walmart’s recent success in pilot studies tracking pork and mango. Walmart chose to collaborate with IBM using its product Hyperledger Fabric. Walmart conducted the experiment for mangos by working with GS1 to develop new product labels while IBM created programs that could read those labels and transfer the information into the blockchain network. Walmart worked with its mango suppliers by providing new labels and support to integrate them into existing operations. After, suppliers were able to upload their data through a secure web portal that connected their business to the rest of the blockchain. Walmart then tested the system to see how long it would take them to trace a given mango to its source – it reduced the time from a week to 2.2 seconds! Imagine if that were the case for the Yuma romaine lettuce outbreak! Of course, there are two caveats: 1) Walmart is an outlier as this technology is relatively new, and 2) the pilot studies were not studying outbreak investigations rather the efficiency of product tracking.
The hype around blockchain is exciting but perhaps too enthusiastic. A look from a food safety perspective reveals some practical challenges. Most think of food inspectors when they think of food safety or, if you have worked in food service, then you may think of the ubiquitous hand washing sign. Food safety is a joint effort among everyone who comes in contact with the food you enjoy. There is a complex system of food laws dictating how products are grown, processed, and manufactured to ensure they are safe and exactly what you paid for. Then, there are the management systems businesses use to test, label, market, and track products. So, although blockchain may be a huge advantage for problems ,like how to identify which suppliers may have been exposed to contamination, it is only one piece in the large system that makes food safe.
Blockchain also comes at high cost to implement and maintain. When compared to other record keeping options, many companies use paper or electronic management systems analogous to Ventra from the earlier example. Even RFID, a technology that has been on the market for 40 years, was recently incorporated in smart packing technology and had an average price of $.10 a tag per product (Aiello et al., 2015). This is a very high cost for an industry that traditionally has very small profit margins. Another challenge is the investment in human resources or equipment to ensure compliance with food safety standards. If a business is large enough, they can likely hire food safety officers to monitor employee behavior, equipment cleanliness, and new policy developments and generate reports. Additional options for those with less resources include hiring certified third-party consultants to conduct the same activities. Now imagine a company already uses a paper record keeping system and wants to transition to a new electronic system. The company has to make investments to secure the software service used for electronic record keeping and train new staff to monitor the operation and maintenance of that system. Or perhaps the company already uses an electronic data system but needs to upgrade equipment or invest into employee training. This is the reality of food safety – there are many other aspects like cost and training that influence the adoption of this technology.
Blockchain record keeping is one tool in food safety that has enormous potential for improving traceability considering recent advancements in technology but still... blockchain is no magic bullet.
Aiello, G., Enea, M., & Muriana, C. (2015). The expected value of the traceability information. European Journal of Operational Research, 244(1), 176-186. doi:10.1016/j.ejor.2015.01.028
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Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 Infections Linked to Chopped Romaine. Retrieved May 14, 2020, from https://www.fda.gov/food/outbreaks-foodborne-illness/fda-investigated-mu...
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Smith, M. (2018). In Wake of Romaine E. coli Scare, Walmart Deploys Blockchain to Track Leafy Greens. Retrieved May 13, 2020, from https://corporate.walmart.com/newsroom/2018/09/24/in-wake-of-romaine-e-coli-scare-walmart-deploys-blockchain-to-track-leafy-greens
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Undergraduate Student Researcher
Department of Food Science & Technology