What else can China do to gain trust in food safety besides advertisement bombing?
Several years ago, there were tainted milk scandals in China that claimed four lives and caused sickness to tens of thousands of people. While watching the 2018 FIFA world cup and noticing that specific milk brand, an idea came into my mind that, as time passes by, people might forget those food scandals which have caused casualties, because massive advertisements are setting good company images in our surroundings. However, food safety is one of the most essential issues in the society due to its direct impact on health. It is important to keep track of the food supply chain. Thanks to technology, we are able to track the process of food production by applying blockchain. In the next few paragraphs, I’m going to talk about why blockchain is the cure and how its characteristics can fix this issue.
Trust no one but blockchain: blockchain is the therapy of food safety problems
Despite the Chinese tainted milk scandals have called attention to food safety, it is not the only case. The World Health Organisation estimates that almost 1 in 10 people fall ill every year from eating contaminated food and 420,000 die as a result. Moreover, children under 5 years of age are at particularly high risk, with 125,000 children dying from foodborne diseases every year. Apparently, current food safety and quality management systems are not designed to detect nor sophisticated enough to prevent unqualified ingredients appearing in our food. In addition, there has been information asymmetry in the food industry — customers would not have known if the suppliers have tampered with the food. Especially when a food safety scandal breaks out, it is usually too late. Lots of people have already consumed the poisoned milk and it is almost always extremely difficult to trace back who has bought what at what time and what batch it was. The cost of recovery is punishingly high if procurement is not done properly, hence, it is important to get things right in the beginning. Furthermore, capturing consumers’ trust is another mission-impossible. (God knows how much Volkswagen has spent on the media to make them quiet on certain reports). Take the Chinese tainted milk scandal for example. Although authorities have promptly taken action to enforce new quality tests and the brands involved have withdrawn poisoned products from the market right after the scandals broke, it was not an easy task to convince their consumers that the quality of food will really meet the standards from then on and that a similar case will not happen again in the future. Besides, the food poisoning incidents have left a notorious impact on the ‘Made in China’ brand in the food industry. The US authorities even issued a nationwide “import alert” for Chinese-made food products. Since the consumers may no longer find quality tests accountable, the biggest problem for food producers is to gain trust from the buyers, hence the advertisement bombing during international events like the World Cup. But what else can they do? Some say blockchain provides a whole new world of trust.
From farm to plate, blockchain dishes up simple food tracking: the application of blockchain on food supply chain
As a shared, traceable and transparent ledger for record-keeping, blockchain is able to provide provenance and immutable data from the source, hence deliver food safety solutions in the food supply chain. On blockchain, the information is not only captured in each transaction along a supply chain, which is pre-agreed on by parties on the network , but also made permanent once consensus is reached. Once connected directly to IoT devices or data have been from certified testers, the records on a blockchain cannot be altered or deleted, further assuring the accuracy of the information of the food.
Introducing blockchain into food supply chain may bring benefits in three phases. Firstly, the food producers can instantly identify and prevent the potential attempt to tamper with the food, such as its ingredients, as it moves along the supply chain to make sure the food is safe before it goes to the retailers. Secondly, customers will be able to identify high-quality food without the hindrance of information asymmetry because transparency and openness of blockchain provide the customers with what they need to select safe food. Finally, blockchain can increase the efficiency of tracing back the product. Currently, authorities require companies in the food supply chain to provide ‘one back, one up’ traceability. In this case, ‘one back’ is where the food come from, and ‘one up’ is where the food goes nest. This step by step method slows down the process of tracing back the food. When food safety scandals occur, it is usually too slow to dig out the information needed, especially from the paper records. At this moment in time, blockchain makes things easier by providing digital records that are traceable.
Blockchain, the future guardian of food safety?
So, is it possible to scale up blockchain application and allow consumers to track all products back to their source? In my opinion, the answer is yes, but there is still a long way to go. As food production get more complicated and more international, the information needed for the tracking process gains, and therefore the process becomes more challenging. In addition, not all companies are willing to disclose their data on the food supply chain. But it is pleased to learn that practical actions have been taken by cross nation governments and some of the world’s leading companies. Last year, Walmart has brought blockchain into its Food Safety Collaboration Center in Beijing. Collaborating with IBM, Walmart aims to fix the safety issues and has built a new model for ‘food traceability, supply chain transparency, and auditability.’ Moreover, China and the European Union have been working on a project called ‘EU-China-Safe’, focusing on food fraud. Throughout the trends, we can expect an era of massive blockchain adoption will come eventually and the next step is for new regulations to adapt to facilitate the adoption.