How does blockchain technology help the food industry?

Blockchain, blockchain, blockchain. It’s all anyone wants to talk about (including myself, to some extent).

In just the past week, people have sent me two articles about blockchain and the food industry: The Next Web wrote about Australia recently shipping almonds to Germany with blockchain technology, and Forbes wrote about some of the major players working to implement blockchain technology in the food manufacturing industry.

Clearly businesses see potential benefits from using blockchain technology – but what are they?

Blockchain Technology and the Food Industry

Cut Red Tape, Reduce Waste, and Eliminate Wasteful Bureaucracy

One of the benefits frequently highlighted is the reduction in bureaucratic waste. By replacing paperwork and verification steps with blockchain technology, businesses can reduce costs and save time.

The assumption is that everyone in the supply chain uses the same blockchain software, let alone using it at all.

These articles talk about huge companies that have the resources to do trial runs, which is great for those who can’t afford to test the waters. But everyone involved in the experiment is testing the same software.

I realize that may seem like an obvious statement and necessary for product development, but with the way “blockchain” is so freely used, articles make it sound universally accessible, rather than a new technology.

As far as I’ve seen, companies like IBM and Microsoft are developing solutions, which means it’s unlikely they’ll speak to each other. Why would one business want to be compatible with another business’s software for the same purpose?

It’s the same dilemma that the medical industry faced with digitizing medical records. Sure, it technically eliminated the need for fax machines, but because none of the solutions speak to each other, hospitals and medical offices are still using fax machines. (For more about this, listen to Vox’s The Impact.)

Blockchain_Med-01

E. Coli, Salmonella, and Other Scary Words That Make Your Stomach Crawl

Another the common example of application is that of foodborne illnesses. If there’s an E. Coli outbreak, officials will be able to trace the source in a matter of seconds and identify where the problem originated.

For example, take the romaine lettuce E. Coli outbreak in the United States in spring 2018. Illnesses were reported at the end of March, and an official statement was released by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) on April 10.

Between April 18 and May 16, the CDC suspected that the contaminated lettuce came from the Yuma region and continued to investigate.

On May 16, they released a statement to say that all contaminated lettuce from the Yuma region was last harvested on April 16.

In this instance, blockchain technology could have potentially stopped the contaminated harvesting sooner. Instead of receiving enough evidence after the last harvest date, the CDC could have found that information sooner with the near-immediate retrieval of information that blockchain technology provides.

But where do we lag the most in food illness outbreaks? Is the time businesses spend trying to determine where a shipment came from? Or is it more about the resources available to the CDC and the constraints of simply being human?

The first reported illness from this outbreak was on March 22 – 19 days before the outbreak was officially declared. And even when the CDC released their official statement on April 10, they were not sure of the cause. Romaine lettuce is not pegged as the culprit until April 13.

Collecting data to prove an outbreak takes time and is not necessarily something that can be resolved by blockchain. Take it one step further – can blockchain even help prevent the outbreak from happening in the first place?

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m excited about blockchain technology. I still love seeing all the new trials and applications of it. I’m just hesitant to put all my eggs in this trustless basket for now.

Author: Sterling Schuyler

Sterling writes to put broad statements into real context. She enjoys conducting in-depth research in order to bring factual integrity to any topic, especially anything about food. Whether it's the ethics of food science or the tale of a family-owned business, Sterling loves to breathe life and substance into these stories. In her downtime, she enjoys gardening, playing board games and video games, and writing for her personal blog The Asian Craving.

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