Jul 9, 2020
Blockchain technology evolving food traceability
Zeke Jennings

Editor’s note: The July 8 webinar by the National Organic Program on its Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule mentioned that organic imports could be required to have traceability back to the port of origin if the proposed rule is adopted. Traceability is an increasingly important issue in modern food systems, but it also is an evolving area in which some companies are using blockchain technology. In this article, OG Contributing Editor Zeke explains some of that technology.

Blockchain was quite a buzz word in recent years as cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, began to draw attention from the masses.

The hype around cryptocurrency and whether it was about to take off as the new way of bartering has faded, but misconceptions of what blockchain is and what it can be used for are still out there.

In short, blockchain and cryptocurrency are not the same thing. The latter is built on blockchain technology, but the technology itself can be used to track anything of value, including food.

In 2017, Walmart, then led by current Food & Drug Administration Deputy Director Frank Yiannas, headed up a collaboration with IBM that included produce giants Dole and Driscoll, among others, to create a blockchain traceability platform: the IBM Food Trust.

The IBM Food Trust acts as sort of a centralized database, or “a digital ledger system,” as culinary scientist Ali Bouzari said on IBM’s website. The more farms, shippers, packers, processors and stores that are part of the blockchain, the faster food can be traced, at least that’s the idea. Yiannas has said tests have traced food from the store back to the farm in as little as 2.2 seconds.

United Fresh Blockchain
Natalie Dyenson, Dole’s VP of food safety and quality, delivers a presentation on blockchain.

Each handler along the supply line scans the produce, or whatever form of food it may be, as it moves through the supply chain. Each company’s data becomes part of the blockchain in chronological order. As Natalie Dyenson, vice president of food safety and quality at Dole, said during United Fresh 2019, the blockchain is safe because outside companies can only see data you allow them to see.

But what if a company along the supply chain isn’t part of the blockchain? Well, tracing food doesn’t happen as fast or as smoothly.

IBM Food Trust isn’t the only blockchain food traceability platform currently available in the U.S. 

iTradeNetwork, a logistics and supply chain technology firm, introduced iTrade Blockchain last year. Rene Cardenas, iTradeNetwork’s VP, Head of Marketing & Strategic Planning said the platform can interact with other platforms, but isn’t at the current time.

UPDATE: New proof-of-concept shows traceability platforms can interact

“iTrade Blockchain operates as a distinct solution in that we oversee it and populate it with data we capture across our native traceability, procurement, quality management and logistics applications,” said Cardenas. “However, it was built using the hyperledger open source framework, so that our blockchain could be interoperable and able to share information with other blockchains, whether that’s IBM Food Trust or others. 

“We always keep open lines of communication with fellow providers and welcome conversations about collaborating.”

PTI provides framework

Gary Fleming, CEO of data and analytics provider Dapicon, recently hosted a webinar, titled “An Alternative to Blockchain,” which is available on the company’s website.

Fleming said food producers and shippers using a Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI)-complaint tracking and labeling system already have everything in place to satisfy FDA traceability requirements.

PTI was created by the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), United Fresh Produce Association and supply chain technology firm GS1 a little more than decade ago. When a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is created, it allows companies along the supply chain to see one step away along the supply chain (i.e., a distribution center knows the shipper it got the product from and also the store it was sent to).

“PTI framework covers the responsibility and reach of each supply chain member,” Fleming said. “Any solution is troubled by less than 100% implementation.”

Not every food producer is utilizing PTI, as it is an industry-created guideline, not a federal regulation. A year ago, PMA Vice president of Supply Chain and Sustainability Ed Treacy said 60-65% of all cases in the U.S. supply chain had PTI-complaint labeling. While Treacy didn’t give a numerical figure to the percentage now, he did say it has likely gone up substantially because of Kroger telling its suppliers they must be PTI-complaint. Walmart did so in 2013.

“Other major retailers will have and will be requesting PTI labeling compliance in the next few months in support of the new Canadian regulations and the scheduled September 2020 release FDA’s proposed Record Keeping for Foods rule,” Treacy added.

Fleming noted that absolute transparency, like being able to track a piece of fruit to tree, isn’t realistic, even with blockchain, because of the cost of serializing every piece of produce. At the other end, unless a market and its customers utilize a frequent shopper platform that tracks purchases, it’s impossible to know which refrigerator a product winds up in.

Whether blockchain or any supply chain tracking system, Fleming said accuracy is the most important part of traceability.

“A solution is only as good as those who participate,” he said.

Zeke Jennings is a contributing editor of Organic Grower. He also is the managing editor of Spudman and Produce Processing magazines.

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