Blockchain + the changing food industry landscape
Elise Deming, MS, RDN, LDN
Blockchain and the Changing Food Industry Landscape
The food industry continuously changes and progresses. This constant evolution has encouraged a connection between technology and food; a connection that is more developed than ever. Advances in technology have impacted the food industry such as improved transparency, food waste reduction, crop development, strategic and sustainable farming, and updated federal guidelines. One of the more recent and highly anticipated tech advances making its entrance into the food industry is blockchain.
At a high level, a blockchain is an online, global, decentralized record tracker and storer. A blockchain is built by individual “blocks” or records, which are then linked to other blocks forming a blockchain. These blockchains can be viewed, but not edited making record alteration nearly impossible. Additionally, blockchains are not owned by any single person or group, resulting in a network that is extremely difficult for others to hack or corrupt. Blockchain is best known as the transaction record for the digital currency Bitcoin. However, the technology’s capabilities are expanding into other spaces as blockchain makes its introduction into the food industry.
Blockchain in the Food Industry
The allure of blockchain’s integration into the global food space is due to the potential impacts and leverageable opportunities for food companies and producers. Although not yet melded into today’s food system, once utilized blockchain offers numerous benefits; specifically greater transparency and increased food safety.
Currently, product data is sent from manufacturer to retailer, but additional information is left out of the data trail or housed with hundreds of other records. Tracing a product is difficult with the current documentation processes. Previous Vice President of Food Safety at Walmart and current Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, Frank Yiannas stated, “there is no widely adopted industry standard for how each segment of the food system (farmer, processor, distributor, retailer, etc.) tracks and records data for food traceability purposes”. Products rarely have a trail of data that includes information from the farmer, manufacturer, packager, distributor, transportator, retailer, etc. This is where blockchain offers an advantageous solve. Through blockchain, data from all processes that touch a product can be grouped and then virtually carried with the product wherever it travels. A linkage of data surrounding a food item can improve transparency, food safety, and overall efficiency.
Blockchain + Transparency
A surge in consumer concern for environmental and social sustainability has spurred an increase in the need for more communication surrounding transparency from food companies and producers. Transparency has no defined regulation and can be interpreted differently by many in the food industry. If utilized, blockchain would serve as the source of truth for transparency for consumers and retailers. Data such as emissions from trucks, solar energy used, or plastic recycled can be stored and transmitted by a blockchain to measure sustainability efforts. Additionally, blockchain can trace the authenticity of a food. It can track the product back to the farmer to ensure retailers and eventually consumers are receiving the food that is described on label.
For example, using blockchain, Yiannas traced pigs back to the farm they were raised on in China to ensure their records were authentic. This capability could be used to authenticate many transparency attributes such as organic certifications, countries of origin, free range and grass fed meats, and GMO claims.
Blockchain + Food Safety
Recent food recalls are another glimpse into a space where blockchain could improve widespread food safety and food recalls. If adopted into the industry, a blockchain would be able to better track the origins of an outbreak and where exactly the product contained the bacteria was distributed. Currently, when an outbreak ensures, food recalls remove huge quantities of product from the market out of caution. Usually much of the product recalled does not actually carry harmful bacteria and goes to waste. Typically, finding the source of an outbreak is a laborious process, requiring tracing back to the retailer, manufacturer, processor, and then farmer individually to piece together information and find the initiation of the problem. Therefore, companies lose money, consumers feel a burden, and good food is wasted.
Blockchain virtually groups all of this data, providing end-to-end, producer-to-consumer food traceability. In a foodborne illness event, blockchain would narrow the scope and allow for a more precise tracking of specific products carrying the harmful pathogen. This means less product would be pulled from the market, less capital would be lost, and consumers would still remain safe.
Challenges Facing Blockchain
New technology, such as blockchain, is not without its challenges. The biggest challenge facing blockchain’s integration into the food industry is adoption. To fully utilize a blockchain’s capabilities, all players in a food system must buy in. This means additional costs and culture change for all involved in the food chain. Another challenge blockchain presents is that it is still a brand new technology. There is still much to be learned and created with this technology. Additionally, the data found within a blockchain is only as accurate as the input. This data houser does not validate data, just stores and transports uneditable information. Human error is always a concern in any data system and blockchain is no different.
More than ever the food industry is experiencing revolution with new innovations, new competitors, and new technologies. Blockchain is one such technology that has the opportunity to change the food industry for the better. Through its streamlined, decentralized, database blockchain can help improve food transparency and food safety. This technology is not without challenges, but blockchain is a new and promising form of technology that can greatly impact the food industry.
Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes and does not constitute financial, health, and/or legal advice.