Familiarize yourself with blockchain

Features - Food Safety

Here’s what you need to know about the emerging traceability non-system

March 22, 2017
Lisa Lupo
Photo: Thinkstock.com

Traceability of the food supply chain is not new. It began with the “one step forward/one step back” product-tracing recordkeeping requirements of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. The signing of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011 then took it to new levels with the mandate that FDA “conduct a rulemaking on additional recordkeeping requirements for tracing of certain high-risk foods.” Additionally, USDA's Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA) has recordkeeping requirements for those who buy or sell more than 2,000 pounds of produce in any given day.

Given the fact that PACA exempts small growers, FSMA's Produce Safety Rule has no traceability requirements, and many of the other FSMA rules provide exemptions or exceptions for small and very small businesses, many growers may expect that they will not need to comply with traceability requirements. However, while FDA has not yet established the traceability rule, it is likely that at least some produce will be designated as high-risk and subject to traceability, regardless of the business size.

If that wasn’t enough to get growers to start thinking about implementing a traceability system, the ever-growing consumer demand for transparency of food back to the field is making such applications less of an option and more of a business survival tool.

It may, in fact, turn out to be for the best that FDA's traceability rules have continued to lag, as technology has done the very opposite — with systems and innovations developing at a rapid pace. As such, there are any number of systems that a grower can choose to use for electronic recordkeeping for traceability. And many growers — small to large — have been implementing electronic systems in the field or greenhouse, from handheld barcode scanners to full supply-chain systems that record everything from field site and produce grown to food safety compliance and notifications.

An emerging technology

But even the most robust of systems is beginning to face some competition from the emerging “non-system” blockchain platform. It is a simple, yet complex, platform of data currently used primarily for financial transactions (e.g., by banks) but beginning to penetrate general supply chains because of its ability to "talk" across businesses without requiring that all use the same system — something the food industry has not previously had.

As defined by Blockchain Technologies, a blockchain is a type of distributed ledger, comprised of unchangeable, digitally recorded data in packages called blocks. The blocks are stored in a linear chain, and each contains data (a “bitcoin transaction”) that is cryptographically hashed (“indexed”). The blocks of hashed data draw upon the previous block in the chain, ensuring all data in the overall “blockchain” has not been tampered with and remains unchanged.

In simple terms, as stated by Bureau Veritas vice president of food Vincent Bourdil at the Global Food Safety Conference in March, it is “a chain of blocks that traces transactions and assets.” The blocks are encrypted, carved, and timestamped by “miners,” and once incorporated in the chain, they cannot be changed or removed. Access to the data can then be specified on a person-to-person or business-to-business basis. The system doesn't require that companies change the way they are doing things, but that a single step be added to put their data into the blockchain, Bourdil said.

As such, blockchain enables end-to-end traceability by bringing a common technological language to the food chain, while enabling consumers to “see the full story” of their food on its label through their phones. It is the fact that it is blocks of data that can make blockchain so versatile and valuable to the food industry. Tracing one forward and one back is not terribly difficult, even when the businesses are using different systems. But when there is a need to trace a product through a complex supply chain from retail back to the farm — whether to trace an outbreak; to verify a product is kosher, organic or allergen-free; or simply for consumer transparency — a diversity of systems mean one must literally track one step at a time, from one “silo” of information to the next.

As stated by Greenfence founder/CEO Mitchell Chait, "Even more than transparency, you need to have connectivity." And because blockchain is simply a chain of data, and not a software or a program, it does not become outdated.

Blockchain for growers

While all this may seem of limited interest to some growers who may be thinking, "I am at the base of this chain; the food supply chain has to trace back to me, so why do I need to worry about a chain of blocks or any other traceability system?" it is exactly because growers are at the root of traceability, and are the source of authenticity of all foods. And it is likely for that very reason that Walmart's first blockchain test included a focus on U.S. produce.

During the first quarter of 2017, Walmart implemented a pilot test of the blockchain technology co-developed by IBM, to track produce in the U.S. and pork in China. If the pilots prove to show success and Walmart requires blockchain of all its suppliers, the technology is likely to be the way of the future, as has proven to be the way of the industry with other initiatives of this world's largest retailer.

Lisa is the editor of sister publication Quality Assurance & Food Safety (QA) magazine. llupo@gie.net