to Improved Food Safety
Building a Bridge
By: Kathleen Furore
“Avery Dennison co-launches ‘revolutionary’ blockchain beef initiative”
That headline from a February 28, 2019 story in GlobalMeat News was followed by information that should be of interest to anyone in the food industry:
“Global labelling and functional materials manufacturer Avery Dennison has partnered with Beefchain and the Wyoming Business Council to help ranchers command greater value for beef by using blockchain technology.”
That isn’t the first time blockchain has made news in relation to the food industry.
In 2017, a consortium of companies that included Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Unilever and Walmart, announced a major blockchain collaboration with IBM intended to further strengthen consumer confidence in the global food system.
Last November, thanks to the technology, consumers could use a unique tracking code on their JENNIE O® or Honeysuckle White turkeys to trace their Thanksgiving birds all the way back to the farm where the turkeys were raised.
And most recently—in March 2019—the United States National Pork Board announced an agreement with blockchain startup ripe.io to pilot a blockchain platform for the nation’s pork supply.
Consumers could use a unique tracking code on their JENNIE O® or Honeysuckle White turkeys to trace their Thanksgiving birds all the way back to the farm where the turkeys were raised.
"We look forward to working with ripe.io to use blockchain technology to record proof points through a system that can benchmark performance while increasing transparency of the entire pork value chain,” said Dr. Brett Kaysen, assistant vice president of sustainability at the National Pork Board, in a release announcing the agreement.
Blockchain Technology Structure
What is Blockchain?
Originally designed as the record-keeping technology behind bitcoin, blockchain is a system in which a record of transactions is maintained across a network of linked computers, allowing for safe and secure data transmission. Simply put, it is digital information (the “block”) stored in a public database (the “chain”), investopedia.com explains.
And though in its relative infancy in the food arena, food companies that ignore the technology stand to lose in the long-run—because by most industry accounts, it is not going away. “The food and beverage industry is shaping up to be one of the most inclusive destinations for the technology,” a July 7, 2019 story at cointelegraph.com report. “In 2019, blockchain has been piercing the food industry at an accelerated pace.”
In fact, according to information from research firm Gartner, Inc., 20 percent of the top 10 global grocers will use blockchain by 2025, the story notes.
Why Embrace It?
While there is not one cut and dried answer to that question, the bottom line is that potential benefits abound.
“Traceability to enhance food safety is one of the key reasons why deli meat processors should be interested in learning more about blockchain. With ready-to-eat products such as deli meats, the risk of microbial contamination by Listeria monocytogenes and other foodborne illness-causing pathogens is always top of mind,” explains Julie Larson Bricher, science and technical editor of Meatingplace magazine. “Blockchain offers the opportunity to access supply chain and production data very quickly to identify the sources of potential contamination at any link in distribution. The ability to catch food safety issues helps inform preventive interventions and troubleshooting in near real time, which translates to reducing the risk of costly recalls, damage to the brand reputation and foodborne illness outbreaks.”
The ability to trace and track product efficiently in literally minutes is another important perk, Bricher adds. That, she stresses, not only improves a processor’s food safety system but also can provide greater transparency in terms of the supply chain.
“Consumers want to know where the animal comes from, how it was treated and raised, how it was processed, prepared and packaged, and whether producers and processors are using sustainable practices, for example,” Bricher notes. “Survey after survey shows that purchasing decisions increase significantly when consumers have this information, so data available from blockchain can be a marketing advantage as well.”
And then there’s the business of doing business. From a strictly financial perspective, processors who want to thrive might not succeed without embracing the technology down the line.
“Once blockchain software has been developed, tested, and confirmed to be cost-effective, it could be possible that, at some time in the future, large grocery store chains will require their suppliers (including deli meat processing companies) to participate in the supply chain tracking,” says Dave Berson of Berson Law Group LLP in Overland Park, Kansas.
Behind the Curve
As prevalent as blockchain has become in the cryptocurrency industry, it hasn’t taken off in the food industry just yet. But lack of interest isn’t the problem.
While a few companies have pioneered the technology (IBM’s Hyperledger Fabric software and R3’s Corda Enterprise blockchain software are examples), “Blockchain software to manage the supply chain has not yet been fully developed,” Berson says. “It is my understanding that this is complex technology to develop. It will require a combination of high-speed blockchain software and servers, scannable chips that are affixed to bulk food containers, and a series of supply-chain procedures to ensure appropriate scanning and information collection occurs at each step in the supply chain.”
Lack of digitization in meat and poultry production is another big obstacle, Bricher explains.
“To use blockchain, you’ve got to have some ability to collect and manage Big Data and you’ve got to operate at some level of systems automation that offers interconnectivity and interoperability between machines and processes,” she says. “As more companies adopt Internet of Things (IoT), which are the objects that allow devices to connect, we will likely see greater numbers in terms of embracing the technology.”
So what does this all mean for deli meat processors and the customers they serve? The lesson is to pay attention to developments and don’t discount the benefits blockchain can bring—because, as IBM noted in a press release announcing the 2017 blockchain collaboration with key players in the food industry, the technology holds promise for everyone in the supply chain.
“Blockchain establishes a trusted environment for all transactions. In the case of the global food supply chain, all participants—growers, suppliers, processors, distributors, retailers, regulators and consumers—can gain permissioned access to known and trusted information regarding the origin and state of food for their transactions,” the release said. “This can enable food providers and other members of the ecosystem to use a blockchain network to trace contaminated product to its source in a short amount of time to ensure safe removal from store shelves and stem the spread of illnesses.”