Blockchain for Food-Safety: How the Distributed Ledgers and Smart Sensors can right the ship for Food Industry
With blockchain technology seeping into fields and sectors everywhere, be it cloud computing, trading assets or even the automotive industry. it comes as no surprise that the high-flying technology can be used to revolutionize food safety. The transparent, open-ended, decentralized nature of the blockchain ensures that no piece of the puzzle goes missing, and if needed, information on each and every ingredient within a food item can be presented. Blockchain for food safety can go a long way in bringing back trust in the food that we consume since trust determines our ultimate decisions of what to buy and what to pass up on. With the advent of blockchain solutions, it is possible to reduce a week-long activity to mere seconds. Such is the power of the blockchain. Don’t believe it? Have a look at this project by Walmart and IBM.
CURRENT ISSUES FACED BY THE FOOD-SAFETY AND THE INDUSTRY ITSELF
As of now, there is an inherent lack of trust within the food sector. One simply cannot determine if the tomatoes that he/she is picking off the shelves of the supermarket aren’t genetically modified or not. Sure, one could manually trace back all records of the item in question and arrive at the decision, but that would take days upon days of unworthy effort. Thus, the main problem exists in the inefficiency of the food supply chain.
- INEFFECTIVE TRACING OF CONTAMINATED AND DISEASED PRODUCTS
The global food supply chain brings together farmers, wholesalers, retailers, shopkeepers, supermarket owners, warehouses and factories all under one umbrella. With this huge of an amount of information, there are bound to be inefficiencies in the chain. The inconsistency of data is bound to arise somewhere or the other, especially when such a large network is considered. On a personal level, even the smallest of mistakes can lead to a failed tracing of food items, which, in turn, can lead to a host of other problems. Also, because of a large amount of information involved, companies and brands might not know from what farm or factory a specific food item came. This would then lead to them not knowing how to tackle an unprecedented situation. Due to faulty records, origins of any diseases or contamination carried by the food items may take a while to be detected and then traced back to the source.
- FRAUDS AND SCANDALS
Due to current practices being prone to human error, and malicious intent of some individuals involved, the food industry is no stranger to fraudulent activities and scandalous behavior. In areas like Europe, food scandals have been an unfortunate yet common occurrence. Instances like horsemeat being disguised as beef and sold in frozen foods racked the continent in 2013, which led to various researchers and studies into this whole food fraud issue. Because of the current structure of food supply chains, it is practically impossible to trace the origins of a scandal to the culprits, hence, there is no sign of ceasing of food scandals and frauds. Hacking, inaccuracies, and a variety of other reasons make it possible for people with malicious intent to harm the food industry and then escape unnoticed.
- BOTCHED MEANS OF PAYMENT
Middlemen and transaction fees eat up most of the profits of farmers. Especially in places like India, where agriculture is still the most dominant sector, farmers are not paid what they should be for their produce. Middlemen charge measly rates from farmers and then sell the produce to top companies for huge money, claiming to be selling ‘the freshest and best food available’. How much truth exists in this statement cannot really be confirmed, if the current standards in place are to be used. Inconsistent pricing and botched payment methods have long been a source of grievance for food producers and farmers.
HOW CAN BLOCKCHAIN HELP?
According to Rachel Botsman, ‘institutional trust is not designed for the digital age’. She believes that we are going through a natural progression from an institutional trust to distributed trust, and what better way to implement any distributed concept than the blockchain for food safety. As described before, lack of trust in the food industry is the primary cause of concern, and eliminating this would certainly lead to better food safety standards and an increased faith in the food supply chain.
- TRANSPARENCY AND OPENNESS
Due to the nature of enterprise blockchain, or any type of blockchain for that matter, being an open network, there is no scope for any malicious attempts to compromise the food supply chain. Any activity such as tampering with the food or false advertising can be immediately rectified and the culprits caught even before the food makes it to the supermarkets, because of the utilities of blockchain for food safety. This can help in reducing fraudulent activities and can lower the number of food scandals that occur worldwide.
At the customer end, a simple scan of a QR code can show him/her all the information about the food that he/she is looking to purchase. The country of origin, the actual date of manufacture or production, information about ingredients etc. can make it possible for customers to make informed decisions and choose only the highest quality food items on offer. The phrase ‘from farm to plate’ can be given a whole new meaning with the help of enterprise blockchain for retailers and producers.
2. BETTER TRACING CAPABILITY
One of the obvious benefits of integrating blockchain for food safety is the ability to better track and view the status of food items. According to certain test runs conducted by Walmart and IBM, they were successfully able to track the origin of certain food items in 2.2 seconds using blockchain solutions, as opposed to the 6 days it took to verify the records manually. This shows the potential of blockchain to be industry-disrupting, and this potential has been recognized by blockchain development companies, with retailers and customers now sure of what they are selling and consuming. Another situation where tracebacks in blockchain for food safety can be applied successfully is in the case of contaminated or diseased items entering the food supply chain. Retailers can quickly identify and remove faulty items, thus saving a lot of overheads in full recalls. Also, if action needs to be taken on the contaminated items, due to the blockchain for food safety, their origins can be quickly traced and appropriate steps are taken.
3. PREVENTING LOSSES DUE TO DISEASES AND/OR FRAUD
A follow-up from the previous point, employing blockchain technology in the supply chain, and using blockchain for food safety can ultimately help in getting rid of subsequent losses incurred due to consumption of contaminated and/or diseased products. The need for reducing such cases is pronounced by the 2008 China incident, where about 300000 infants fell ill after consuming milk contaminated with melamine. Such adulteration of food items can cost the industry a whopping USD 49 billion annually, aside from all the auxiliary losses such as healthcare costs and loss of working hours.
Also, due to the distributed nature of the blockchain for food safety, any harmful activities can be immediately detected even before the food items are put out for sale. This can help in reducing the kinds of food frauds mentioned earlier in this article. For instance, meddling with frozen beef to mix it with horse meat would no longer be viable, as the place where the fraudulent activity took place would be easily identifiable and the culprits brought to trial. Blockchain development companies are certainly looking into these specifics in-depth so that they can exploit the technology to the fullest.
A FEW EXAMPLES OF HOW BLOCKCHAIN HAS BEEN SUCCESSFULLY EMPLOYED TO ENSURE FOOD SAFETY
Even though blockchain is still in its infancy, there have been cases where it has been put to good use by countries and companies in order to guarantee that what you see is what you get, in terms of the food on your plate. In the past few years, countries like China have successfully implemented the latest tech like IoT and blockchain for food safety.
After being rocked by the 2008 ‘melamine in milk’ scandal, China has upped its game to make sure that the food it puts out to its citizens is the absolute best that it can offer. This can be a bit of an issue considering the large size of the Chinese population, but the advent of technologies such as blockchain for food safety has certainly made it easier. Studies have shown that the population is indeed aware of the threats posed by unsafe food, with at least 40% of the population seeing food safety as a big problem in the country. The Blockchain Food Safety Alliance, which includes major supermarkets and retailers of the country, is a major step towards food safety regulations and guidelines, and certainly goes a long way in bringing back faith and trust to the customers over the food that they buy. Although blockchain has been put to good use by the large-scale retailers, it still remains a bit of a stumbling block for small-scale businesses and producers, due to fewer funds and RnD capabilities. Blockchain solutions are certain to disrupt every industry imaginable. With the food industry now seemingly under the blockchain wave, China is doing its best to exploit all benefits of this amazing tech in order to ensure food safety.
Also read: Social Media Platforms based on Blockchain
THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The UAE is arguably one of the most futuristic countries in the world. The architecture, the technology, the atmosphere, it all shouts ‘future’ at anyone who’s noticing. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that UAE is one of the leading nations when it comes to utilizing the latest technology trends in order to improve the quality of living. Now, while the UAE may not produce most of its food locally, it still has put digitization to good use in monitoring the roughly USD 200 billion worth of food it imports annually. Much like China, UAE is incorporating IoT and blockchain solutions to monitor and track food products from the point of origin to the point of consumption. At the 11th Dubai International Food Safety Conference in 2017, a digital platform, ‘Food Watch’ was launched to add all the information about food items served by 20000 retailers on the blockchain for food safety. The platform aims at focusing on gathering data about high-risk foods, the establishments that handle them, and the producers or importers. This allows consumers and officials to produce critical information on demand.
POTENTIAL ROADBLOCKS IN ADOPTION OF BLOCKCHAIN FOR FOOD SAFETY
At first sight, it may seem that an enterprise blockchain is a perfect solution to all food safety problems. On closer inspection, however, it is found that there are a few fundamental limitations to the idea of utilizing blockchain for food safety. One of the major roadblocks is the sheer size of the food supply chain itself. Such a large amount of information being processed on the blockchain would probably need various regulations and contracts to be in place, much like the smart contracts employed by Ethereum. An intricate balance of confidentiality and openness needs to be struck in order to ensure successful utilization of blockchain for food safety.
Considering the vast amounts of money and research required in the sector, blockchain cannot be considered as a viable option for many small and medium scale food producers and retailers. Since they do not have the funds and resources to pull off something like this, coupled with the fact they make up a lion’s share of the market, it just proves the fact that blockchain for food safety is still something that needs to be planned and thought out better than it currently is.
Also, the hesitation of countries to adopt blockchain solutions, in general, can prove to be a huge hindrance. Due to the relatively unstable nature of enterprise blockchain acceptance, it might prove to be difficult for firms and retailers to build something based on this technology of blockchain for food safety.
Food safety is an issue which is, no doubt, one of the biggest in the world right now. It comes as no surprise that an industry-disrupting technology such as an enterprise blockchain is being considered as a solution to the problem. Although as of now there are a few bumps in the road to blockchain for food safety, this technology certainly shows a lot of promise and potential for the future. Don’t be surprised when you see many more blockchain development companies going big in food-safety pop up in the future.