Blockchain: A Possible Breakthrough in Food Safety?

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Ever thought about all the “travel steps” needed for food to reach your plates? We’re talking about before you buy it in a store or order it off a menu. Many of us want more information about where our food comes from because we want to make educated food choices. This kind of information is also very important in the food safety world. Food gets tracked from its source (farm, grove, ranch, etc.) to the time it reaches your local grocery store, market or restaurant. The ability to trace all the “footsteps of food” accurately and precisely is a key element of food safety. A new technology platform called “blockchain” is looking to take food traceability to the next level. Listen up: If you ever wanted to be a food super sleuth, this is your lucky day!

What Is Blockchain?

We know “blockchain” may sound like the title of the new Lego movie, but it actually refers to technology that can be used to monitor and track various foods in the supply chain. It includes gathering data from “farm to fork” or “gate to plate” — all the steps necessary to produce and sell all the foods we enjoy. This new technology can help in food recalls, identifying potential introduction of foodborne illness-causing bacteria, viruses or chemicals, and it can also help the battle against food waste.

Blockchain technology digitizes food data and allows the information to be held by more than one person or party. Yup, no more paper logs or hand-written records. With the implementation of blockchain, all the data is put into electronic form and is accessible by computers, smartphones and tablets. So if you happen to grow cucumbers and they end up as an ingredient in a deli salad, all the information on where or how this cucumber was grown, who transported it, and how it ended up at your favorite deli all will be stored and quickly accessible. The cucumber data will be held in a permanent ledger that cannot be altered, making it extremely secure.

In many current food production information systems, data is shared with a centralized source, and that one source owns all the data. Blockchain distributes data to many sources, allowing ownership of the information to spread wider. Also, data builds up like stacking building blocks — each time a “block of information” is added to the information record about our cucumbers, the chain grows, and the blockchain will contain all the previous data along with the new information.

Blockchain and Food Safety

In our food supply chain, numerous types of food (especially food from other countries) can exchange hands 10 times or more between the food’s place of origin and the end point. Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires each step in the supply chain to have a record of the data for one step forward and one step back in the supply chain. While this information is useful, it can often make it difficult to ensure accurate and reliable records throughout the entire chain because it doesn’t capture the entire process.

Furthermore, blockchain may be able to effectively trace and destroy the contaminated foods that often lead to foodborne illness outbreaks, whereas the current practices lead to excess food waste. Currently in the case of an outbreak, we try to isolate the exact field and lot number that might be causing illness. Additionally, all the food that might be contaminated has to be pulled from shelves or recalled. In 2006, the spinach scare took officials two weeks to pinpoint the problem. The total wasted product and empty shelves cost the economy billions of dollars every year.

Why Blockchain May Make You Happy As a Clam … a Very Safe To Eat Clam

Blockchain technology can aid in tracking food sources in cases of foodborne illnesses, detecting food fraud and limiting food waste. But another “blockbuster” ability for blockchain is how much it will support food supply transparency for consumers. The future of blockchain includes making the digital data on foods accessible to consumers. With this type of information at our fingertips, we could know everything about a grocery store apple from orchard to shopping cart. 

Roadblocks for Blockchain?

Like any other transformative technology, there are a few barriers to overcome. For blockchain to be effective, it needs to be accessible to all the players in the food supply chain from beginning to end.  Two barriers are cost and knowledge of technology. The cost of data entry needs to be low to make the use of blockchain accessible for all food workers, even in disadvantaged areas. Additionally, farm workers will need to routinely use smart phones/tablets and access the internet to be able to input the data. While these practices are familiar to farmers who use precision agriculture, famers worldwide would need to adopt the use of technology for blockchain to be successful.  

Closing Thoughts

We might have to wait a while for blockchain to take over the food supply chain worldwide, but the wait might be worth it to make our food safer and reduce waste. With a growing population around the globe, the reliability of the food chain is key.  

Edward Orzechowski, food technology research intern from Catholic University, and Tamika Sims, PhD, contributed to this article.