Blockchain and the future of the food supply chain

Blockchain has been a huge buzzword in and out of the food industry in recent years. While it’s easy to simply equate the technology with Bitcoin and cryptocurrency, it actually holds huge promise for several other applications. In fact, grocers and restaurants alike are dipping their toes into blockchain technology to find ways to improve transparency, quality and food safety.

What is blockchain?

At its core, blockchain is “a public register in which transactions between two users belonging to the same network are stored in a secure, verifiable and permanent way.” The data from those transactions is saved in cryptographic blocks that are connected to each other, and can then be traced and verified. In the food industry, blockchain can be applied to the supply chain since it allows growers, suppliers, manufacturers and end-users to easily and efficiently verify where an ingredient or product has been.

Technology company IBM is charting a new course for the food retail industry through the use of blockchain tracking. Walmart, Kroger, Tyson Foods and several other CPG companies have teamed up with IBM to undertake a blockchain project that could help ensure food safety and transparency within the supply chain. IBM made its Food Trust technology available to the masses earlier this month, with the cooperative of growers, suppliers and retailers able to collaborate by securely sharing critical data about food products on the blockchain, according to the company.

“IBM Food Trust is designed as a modular solution, which enables users to implement aspects that will be most useful to them at their point in the food supply chain,” the company shared. “Right now, the solution consists of three modules – certification, trace and data entry and upload – with other modules in development to address specific industry pain points.”

How is blockchain being used?

Big retailers are taking notice and finding ways to incorporate blockchain technology into their operations. As part of its partnership with IBM, Walmart recently announced that its suppliers of leafy greens will be responsible for capturing digital, end-to-end traceability information using the technology by 2019. French retailer Carrefour has also signed on to use IBM’s technology to track its chicken, eggs and tomatoes from the supplier to the store.

Dairy Farmers of America recently partnered with startup Ripe.io to test a dairy supply-tracking blockchain to create greater transparency in its supply chain. “We know that there’s a lot of application for blockchain technology within agriculture, and we ultimately want to help our dairy farmers be on the forefront,” said DFA’s David Darr in a press release. “For now, our goal is to evaluate the technology and explore how it might benefit our supply chain.”

Restaurants are also harnessing the power of blockchain. Bloomin’ Brands is testing a solution that will allow it to manage its supplies in the event of a recall related to food safety, while Sweetgreen is using Ripe.io’s technology to track the tomatoes it uses from farm to restaurant.

Applications in recalls and beyond

If effectively implemented across the supply chain, blockchain could improve food recall processes because of the ease and speed with which food can be traced to both its origin and its destination. When tracked immediately, grocers and restaurants could account for the recall-affected items and remove them from shelves or menus. According to IBM, its blockchain technology can aid in this process.

“Walmart conducted a test in which they traced a package of sliced mangoes from the store shelf back to the farm,” the company explained. “Using traditional methods, this trace took more than six days. When done using IBM Food Trust, the solution was able to identify the exact source of the fruit in 2.2 seconds.”

In addition to improving supply chain transparency and food safety, blockchain can provide invaluable data and insights to help the food industry do its job better. IBM is working with climate technology company Emerson to leverage its cold-chain technology to provide temperature-related information on refrigerated cargo to help improve shelf-life estimates and food freshness.

Meanwhile, Ripe.io is doing its part to increase collaboration and information-sharing within the food system and with consumers. According to co-founder Phil Harris, food has yet to undergo a digitization event like music and entertainment have — but the company is working to change that. “[It’s] what the internet has done around information-sharing — what we’ve seen companies like Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Pandora do for music, books and television,” Harris told Forbes. “[Digitization takes] interaction with consumers to another level.”

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