Food Tracking and Verification: Blockchain's Exciting Potential

July 24, 2019

Technology's rapid development is poised to change the landscape of the food industry. In addition to supplementing the development of new food-growing strategies like hydroponics, technology may soon help consumers become more confident in the foods that they consume. In particular, blockchain technology can be used to track exactly where food comes from, providing a wide range of benefits, from tracking contamination to ensuring the authenticity of fair-trade products. Consumers can use the technology to make sure that their produce labeled “organic” actually is organic or that their fish was caught wild and in accordance with international regulations.

Blockchain technology has been most notably connected to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Through blockchain technology, a complete and immutable record is created by spreading information across a wide network of different computers. If one of the records is altered, the system recognizes this and eliminates it from the network. In other words, blockchain guarantees the veracity of information pertaining to anything from financial transactions to food transportation. Multiple companies are now exploring how this technology could benefit the food industry by documenting the origin of a product and allowing suppliers and consumers to see its complete history with the press of a button.

Exciting Applications of Blockchain in the Food Industry

Such technology may become increasingly important given the amount of fraud in the food industry. Studies have shown that mislabeling of products, or representing products as something other than what they are, is common. A more transparent system certainly sounds appealing, which is why companies like IBM and Walmart are already investing in food-based blockchain systems. Recently, Walmart completed a pilot program in which it traced the origin of a package of mangos. Using the blockchain system, Walmart found the origin in a matter of seconds, a process that would have taken at least a week using traditional data-tracking infrastructure. At the same time, this process only worked because everyone involved along the way used the same system. It may not be so easy when the food item’s route involved several stops, each with a different system.

One of the applications of blockchain that could have more immediate impact involves verifying the claims made by individual suppliers. One UK-based company, Provenance, works to do so, whether that means certifying a food item as organic or independently owned. The company also logs locations for consumers who wish to buy locally. Provenance’s mission is to help people fully understand the foods that they eat through technologies like blockchain.

Some Hesitations about the Potential of Blockchain

Not everyone is excited about the prospect of using blockchain in the food industry. While industry experts recognize the potential of this technology, they also point out that real-world food tracking is incredibly complex. As the Walmart example above illustrates, the efficacy of blockchain depends on every part of the supply chain using the same system.

In regard to blockchain as a means of tracking food contamination, it usually takes months of people falling ill and being hospitalized for authorities to realize there is an outbreak and attempt to issue a food recall, at which point all of the contaminated food has been consumed, leaving nothing to recall.

Another issue with blockchain is that it requires accurate information from the initial source. With today’s market full of “food frauds,” such as tilapia posing as halibut or maple syrup diluted with water, blockchain can only identify these items as fakes if the original information about the product was correct. If companies are now willing to lie, what would stop them from lying on the blockchain record?

The Future of Blockchain Technology in the Food Industry

At the same time, these criticisms may prove slightly unfair. Once a foodborne illness is identified, blockchain could speed the process of tracking the origin of the contamination, provided that it comes to the attention of officials in a timely manner. Moreover, every person on the supply chain, from growers to retailers, is held accountable by the transparency of a blockchain system, so suppliers put a lot more at risk when they lie about a product.

Perhaps the most valid concern is the financial one. Suppliers at all levels would have to invest in blockchain technology, which ultimately means increasing the price of food products for consumers.

While companies like IBM and Walmart have the capital to invest in this technology, smaller companies, not to mention growers, distributors, and processors, may not be able or willing to, especially considering that many people associate blockchain with the controversial Bitcoin. At the same time, IBM’s blockchain ledger is already available commercially, and some of the biggest retailers and suppliers in the world are piloting it. If they permanently adopt the technology, that could put pressure on everyone else along the supply chain to do the same.