June 2018 Issue

Food Safety: Blockchain Technology
By Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 20, No. 6, P. 14

Learn how this digital ledger in the cloud may help with transparency and traceability.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed into law by former President Obama more than seven years ago, is now more than just a piece of paper as evidenced by the FDA unrolling a series of compliance deadlines. One important facet of the law is food traceability. The global food system is changing dramatically, as is the understanding of the consequences of foodborne illness for both public health and the economic well-being of the food system.1

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 6 people in the United States (48 million) get sick from foodborne illnesses each year. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.2 The intent of the FSMA is to shift the focus of the nation's food safety system from responding to foodborne illness to preventing it.1

While there's more than one way to trace a food's path from farm to fork, one method that may offer increased speed, security, and trust is blockchain technology—a tamper-resistant, cloud-based digital ledger that traces a food from farm (or ocean) to table. Blockchain technology has the potential to benefit everyone who eats, and dietitians who work in foodservice or supermarkets, consult with brands, or are concerned about sustainability and food waste may be most interested in what it has to offer.

Understanding Blockchain
The process of getting food from growers to consumers involves several intermediaries, including farmers, processors, food manufacturers, retailers, and regulators. Although current traceability systems work, information may be incomplete, come from multiple sources, and appear in different formats. Plus, data typically are shared only between groups that have direct contact, which means that no single group has a complete view of the entire supply chain.

Blockchain provides this complete view, also known as end-to-end traceability, because the entire supply chain shares the same digital ledger of information. It enables different segments of the food system to capture and upload information about a food product, including what has been done to it and where it has been. Anyone in the supply chain can see the ledger at any time, but any changes require consensus, which prevents tampering.3,4

Last year, IBM announced a collaboration with several food companies, including grocers (Walmart, Kroger, and Wegmans), foodservice suppliers (McLane Company and Golden State Foods), and food companies (Dole, Driscoll's, McCormick and Co, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, and Unilever). IBM built Hyperledger Fabric, a blockchain "umbrella" project of open-source blockchain (it can be freely modified and shared) and related technologies housed under the Linux Foundation's Hyperledger group.5,6

Tamika Sims, PhD, director of food technology communications for the International Food Information Council, says one of blockchain's most promising features is how it will expand the network of data building. "Because blockchain allows for the digitization of food data and for the information to be held by more than one party, the data on many foods is not as centralized," she says.

Centralization may seem like a good thing, but it has both pros and cons, says Andy Kennedy, MBA, interim director at the Global Food Traceability Center at the Institute of Food Technologists. "Central databases are operationally more efficient than blockchain databases in the same way that a single, central public library is more efficient than having a library in every city," he says. "However, if the central library burns down or is robbed, all the books are gone; similarly, if anything were to happen to a central database, there would no longer be a record of any of the data." He says blockchain technology ensures better data protection and longevity.

Improving Food Safety
Nathan Jin, CEO of Ivy Food Tech (ivyfood.tech), a company that has its own blockchain platform, says most food industry blockchain applications are focused on improving food safety or reducing food fraud, and the biggest benefits likely will be for food safety. "Recalls cost on average $10 million [each] because we can't figure out where things are from and what they've come into contact with in a quick method—and these recalls happen all the time," he says.7

Sims says having more data "from farm to final customer" may support the safety of our food supply chain by expanding the amount of data and providing those data in real time. "However, this technology is not meant to replace our current data recording system; it is a way to help supplement transparency in the food supply chain system," she says.

One much-touted benefit of blockchain technology is the speed of traceability in the case of a foodborne illness outbreak—pinpointing in minutes, rather than days, whether a product on a store shelf or in a restaurant kitchen is implicated. Jin mentions IBM and Walmart's often-cited case study of how it took six days to trace mangoes on store shelves back to the source using conventional means—manually e-mailing, faxing, and calling each step of the supply chain to find the mangoes—compared with two seconds to trace them via a database query using Hyperledger. He says these aren't really comparable methods, and that speed isn't necessarily unique to blockchain—in other words, any traceability software would be faster than tracking a food manually. "The innovation is that the complete history has never been on a single database before, and there's immense value in coordinating the data between all the actors."

Prevention of Food Fraud
FSMA contains compliance requirements to help reduce food fraud, and blockchain-facilitated traceability could be a valuable tool. Currently, consumers have no reliable way to verify the origins of their food—is it really organic or GMO-free?8 Was it actually grown in the United States? Is that tuna really tuna? Blockchain technology may make it easier to track not just where a food came from but also how it was produced. Was it produced safely and responsibly? Was it grown sustainably? Enhanced traceability can increase trust and improve transparency and efficiency.

Last year, spurred by the Oceans Conference at United Nations headquarters, 50 companies began working together to stop illegal tuna from coming to the market using blockchain technology tools such as satellite tracking to monitor ocean resources. The goal is to help stop illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, as well as reduce human rights abuses in the tuna industry, which include human slavery and illegal trafficking.9 In one World Wildlife Fund pilot project, a tuna will be tagged as soon as it's caught, and scanning devices will collect information at every point in the supply chain, with that data uploaded to the blockchain.10 A similar project in 2016 tracked fish caught by fishermen with verified social sustainability claims.11

Reduction of Food Waste
While much food waste occurs on the consumer end, there's room for improvement on the producer/distributor end. Kennedy says using blockchain to help prevent food waste is simpler than using it to investigate foodborne illness and fight food fraud, and that the most likely application will be temperature monitoring and supply chain optimization to maintain freshness. "For example, product expiration dates may be combined with temperature sensor data and real-time product movement in a blockchain shared by a specific supply chain," he says. "This would enable all stakeholders to better rotate inventory, isolate expired foods, and improve supply chain efficiency."

Hype or Help?
So is the hype about blockchain warranted? Jin points out that it's important to understand what a blockchain can and can't do. "I believe that blockchain systems will be implemented and offer great value, but their form in five or 10 years may not look like how they look today, just like the internet today looks substantially different than pre-2000."

Sims says the growth in accessibility to data for food tracing is a good thing for all who touch the food supply chain—producers, distributors, and consumers—and is also at the highest level of concern for the FDA, USDA, and Environmental Protection Agency as they develop regulations to ensure the reliability of the food system. "Food safety is at the top of the list when it comes to making sure our foods aren't negatively contributing to human health, thus measures that can help decrease food fraud and foodborne illness are extremely valuable," she says, but adds, "The verdict is out on [whether] this will be an improvement on established methods used in traceability as these entities work to adhere to FSMA rules."

— Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, is the nutrition columnist for The Seattle Times and speaks frequently on nutrition-related topics. She also provides nutrition counseling via the Menu for Change program in Seattle.

1. Background on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). US Food and Drug Administration website. https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ucm239907.htm. Updated January 30, 2018.

2. Foodborne illnesses and germs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html. Updated February 16, 2018.

3. Blockchain FAQs. Institute of Food Technologists website. http://www.ift.org/gftc/resources/blockchain-faq.aspx. Accessed April 2, 2018.

4. Yli-Huumo J, Ko D, Choi S, Park S, Smolander K. Where is current research on blockchain technology?—a systematic review. PLoS One. 2016;11(10):e0163477.

5. IBM. IBM announces major blockchain collaboration with Dole, Driscoll's, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Unilever and Walmart to address food safety worldwide. PR Newswire website. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/ibm-announces-major-blockchain-collaboration-with-dole-driscolls-golden-state-foods-kroger-mccormick-and-company-mclane-company-nestle-tyson-foods-unilever-and-walmart-to-address-food-safety-worldwide-300507604.html. Published August 22, 2017.

6. About Hyperledger. The Linux Foundation Projects website. https://www.hyperledger.org/about. Accessed April 9, 2018.

7. Grocery Manufacturers Association. Capturing recall costs: measuring and recovering the losses. https://www.gmaonline.org/file-manager/images/gmapublications/Capturing_Recall_Costs_GMA_Whitepaper_FINAL.pdf. Published October 2011.

8. Cattini C. Food fraud costs the global food industry $10-15 billion annually. IFIS Thought for Food Blog website. https://blog.ifis.org/global-food-fraud. Published April 4, 2016.

9. Waughray DKN. Tuna 2020 traceability declaration: stopping illegal tuna from coming to market. World Economic Forum website. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/06/tuna-2020-traceability-declaration-stopping-illegal-tuna-from-coming-to-market. Published June 5, 2017.

10. Visser C, Hanich Q. How blockchain is strengthening tuna traceability to combat illegal fishing. The Conversation website. http://theconversation.com/how-blockchain-is-strengthening-tuna-traceability-to-combat-illegal-fishing-89965. Published January 21, 2018.

11. Provenance; International Pole & Line Foundation; Humanity United. From shore to plate: tracking tuna on the blockchain. https://www.provenance.org/tracking-tuna-on-the-blockchain. Published July 15, 2016.