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Food Safety - The Block Chain Advantage

Food safety should normally be everybody’s concern as it is difficult to find anyone who has not encountered an unpleasant moment of foodborne illness at least once in the past year. If we analyse the term food safety, it describes all practices that are used to keep our food safe. Food safety usually relies on the joint efforts of all stakeholders involved in the food supply. Throughout the food chain, from farmers and producers to retailers, caterers, legislation and controls should be in place to reduce the risk of contamination. As global supply chains grow, food safety has become a top concern with both consumers and regulators. Food can easily become contaminated at any stage of production, processing, distribution, storage or preparation. Foodborne illnesses could also result from consuming food that is contaminated by microbial pathogens, toxic chemicals or radioactive materials. Food allergy is another emerging problem and while many foodborne diseases may be self-limiting, some can be very serious and even result in death.

Food Safety in the Global Context

In the context of our changing food habits, popularization of numerous catering establishments and the globalization of our food supply, ensuring food safety is becoming increasingly important. With Globalization of our food supply, the need to strengthen food safety systems in and between all countries is becoming more and more prominent. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that close to 420,000 people die annually from food contamination, and this affects one in 10 people worldwide. Children under the age of five are at the highest risk with 125,000 children dying every year from foodborne illness, according to WHO. This is a main reason why WHO is promoting efforts to improve food safety, from farm to plate.

The global food system is seeing dramatic changes, and so is the understanding of the consequences of foodborne illness for both public health and the economic well-being of the food system. In the recent times, our global food supply has grown so complex that it has become almost impossible for food producers and retailers to guarantee the provenance of their products. As with any industry in modern times, where there is opportunity there are bound to be those who take advantage of the system. Technology may have definitely improved in the 21st Century, but similar methods used in our food supply today give the phrase “you are what you eat” an unsettling connotation.

The food’s journey from farm to table involves a number of transactions between different people and companies. What if the process could be simplified, enabling transactions to be shared securely and efficiently among every stakeholder in the supply chain?

Blockchain - The New Internet

It’s hard to escape from blockchain – not that one would like to, and by allowing digital information to be distributed and not copied, blockchain technology today is responsible for the creation of the backbone of a new type of internet. Originally, blockchain was devised for the digital currency, Bitcoin, but the tech community soon found other potential uses for the technology.

Each industry today seems to be considering the Blockchain technology as potentially revolutionary & thus, it is safe to ask the pertinent question, “how blockchain might significantly change the food industry.”

In order to protect people from unsafe food, the process has to be fast, and it has to be right – and blockchain technology offers a chance to improve speed, accuracy and trust levels like never before. The blockchain provides a neutral open platform where there is no need of a third party to authorize transactions, but rather a set of laid down rules which all participants, both users and the operators of the system, must abide by strictly. Such a system is invaluable in complex supply chains where trust is normally low and compliance very difficult to assess. Blockchain then becomes a unique network, connecting all stakeholders, growers, processors, distributors, and retailers through a permissioned, permanent and shared record of food system data.

The advantages of the blockchain for the food industry

Today Blockchain food traceability is fast gaining momentum in the global agri-food sector. The ability to be able to instantaneously trace the entire lifecycle of food products right from the origin through every point of contact on its journey to the delivery to consumer bolsters credibility, efficiency and safety.

The entire process of getting food from growers to delivery to consumers involves numerous intermediaries, which include farmers, food manufacturers, processors, retailers, and various regulators. While there are current traceability systems which work but information may be incomplete, come from multiple sources and could appear in different formats. Additionally, data is typically shared only between groups that are in direct contact and so no single group has a complete view of the entire supply chain.

Blockchain on the other hand provides a complete view, also known as end-to-end traceability, because now the entire supply chain shares the same digital ledger of information and enables different segments of the food system to capture and upload all information about a particular food product, including what changes have been done to it and where it has been. Anyone in the supply chain can see the ledger at any time, but no changes are possible any changes require consensus, which prevents tampering.

Blockchain technology can revolutionize data and documentation organization by making results traceable, tamper-resistant, and transparent.

1. Traceability

Blockchain technology aims to digitally record and track all the stages of the supply chain and records documentation for future use. It therefore becomes easy to pinpoint when and where noncompliance issues occurred enabling to hold the right individuals accountable as the owner strengthens weak links in the supply chain.

2. Tamper-resistant

All details are uploaded and linked together with blockchain and it’s virtually impossible for one or even a few people to tamper with the data in any form. The data once stored in a secure location becomes a single source of truth.

3. Transparency

Blockchain enables a network of digitally linked data points throughout the entire supply chain giving you visibility into your food safety and supply chain operations and documentation can be found quickly when requested by the food safety authorities / government institutions ensuring accountability.

Key Implications of Blockchain:

  • Improving Food Safety

Most blockchain applications in the food industry are focused on improving food safety or on reducing food fraud, and the biggest benefits likely will be for food safety. Food traceability systems that exist today are typically handled at a company level, and so important information can be stuck in silos, hindering critical food recalls. Recalls in the food industry can cost exorbitant amount of money because companies usually are unable to pin point where food items are from and what they've come into contact with in a quick method—and such recalls happen on a number of occasions. With more data "from farm to final customer" may support the safety of food supply chain by expanding the amount of data and providing those data in real time.

One much-touted benefit of blockchain technology is the speed of traceability in the case of a foodborne illness outbreak, quickly pinpointing whether a product on a store shelf or in a restaurant kitchen is implicated. The innovation is that the complete history can be tracked on a single database, and there's immense value in coordinating the data between all the stakeholders."

  • Prevention of Food Fraud

Most global food safety practices include certain compliance requirements to help reduce food fraud, and blockchain facilitated traceability could be a tool of immense value. Currently, consumers have no reliable way to verify the origins of their food—is it organic or GMO-free? Was it grown in India / or source mentioned on the label? Is that tuna really tuna? Blockchain technology would surely make it easier to track not just where a food came from but also how it was produced. One can be sure if the food was produced safely and responsibly, if it was grown sustainably? This would result in enhanced trust and improve transparency and efficiency.

Limitations of blockchain

There are certain inherent limitations for blockchain food traceability adoption and for blockchain to be effective, there must be participation from all stakeholders and all points of contact involved. Additionally, data integrity lies in the hands of the data collectors and needs a system of validation to avoid tampering.

Transparency pertaining to food traceability is good but if transparency is used as a strategy to exploit market pricing dynamics, then it can be a deterrent. The nature of a dynamic pricing market allows for participants to gain transparency and capitalize on pricing inefficiencies and it is this mechanism that keeps markets competitive with participants constantly buying, selling and hedging to improve margins. Participants and counterparties are naturally leery of providing too much transparency that may expose pricing and hedging strategies.

The Future of Blockchain in Food Safety

It’s evident that blockchain has the potential to transform global supply chain traceability, but it’s also important to remember that using blockchain in food safety is not a magic bullet.

Some challenges will still be difficult to address in the processing and distribution of certain kinds of goods. For example, flour manufacturers source several farms for wheat, but the wheat may get processed all together. This means that it may be difficult and slow to trace the actual source during an outbreak. This is a unique challenge that obviously affects exact traceability, and it seems unlikely that blockchain is the entire solution.

It could be argued that the most exciting potential for blockchain may be from helping the food safety community and many others build open networks of reputable suppliers that meet specific quality standards as well as social responsibility standards. An open network would help individual businesses find the qualified suppliers they need, which in turn would help the food safety industry improve as a whole.

Blockchain is here to stay

Treating the supply chain like a chain, a single chain that goes from one place to another is not the right way to look at it. In reality, the food ecosystem is a web.

“What blockchain does is it provides trust inside of an ecosystem and allows participants to interact in ways that haven’t been possible before. We’re creating a situation that allows trusted sharing for an entire ecosystem.” – Brigid McDermott, Vice President of Blockchain Business Development, IBM

As the agri-food sector embraces the benefits of blockchain technology, the need to stay competitive is what will ultimately drive the migration to blockchain. It is the nature of markets that mandate competitors to stay relevant to survive.

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