Blockchain and IoT in the Food Supply Chain (Part 26)

Welcome to the 26th part of the 100 part series on Blockchain.

Our food supply chain is under constant threat from adulteration, and there is no way to know the origin of the problem. According to WHO, 1 out of every 10th person becomes ill every year after consuming contaminated food, which ends up taking approximately 420,000 lives every year.

Challenges that the food industry faces

(i) Food Contamination: The biggest challenge that the food industry faces today is the complexity of the global food supply chain. And due to this complexity, it becomes nearly impossible for a retailer to tell the exact provenance of the product. Though retailers have put in place a lot of strict quality checks and measures, but despite that, there has been a lot of food contamination cases recently. Once a contaminated food item reaches the shelves of retailers, the consequences can be quite dire. Such events not only result in big financial and reputation losses for them but also endangers the health and lives of their customers. In the current scenario, if a contaminated food item gets introduced into the food supply chain, it is not an easy task to track and eliminate it. It takes a lot of paperwork and toiling to find the exact item and reach back to its original source to eliminate it from the supply chain.

(ii) Opaque Cold Chain Logistics: Most of the perishable food items like milk and poultry during their transportation must be kept at lower temperatures to keep them fit for consumption. But today, it is nearly impossible to know if these food items stayed at the right temperature during their whole journey and are fit for consumption.

(iii) Food Fraud: The complexity of the food supply chain is exploited by fraudsters as they purposely adulterate, tamper, and substitute one product with another for their economic profits.

Food fraud and tampering can happen at any stage of the supply chain. For example, during the initial stages of procuring and shipping raw materials or during the final stages of product manufacturing and packaging. It may even happen that the tampering is done by some intermediary involved in the supply chain. But in the current system, it is nearly impossible to identify the stage where this tampering is done.

The ramifications of food fraud are many and can range from damage to the brand to financial losses to the retailers and, the worst of them — the poor health of the consumers. Some of the notable instances of food fraud that will make you realize the gravity and seriousness of this menace are as follows:

· In a 2013 food fraud case in the UK, horse meat was mixed with beef and was labeled and sold as beef in the market.

· In 2008, a Chinese infant formulated food was contaminated with chemical plastic named Melamine which hospitalized thousands of infants.

· It has been claimed that around 70% of Kopi Luwak coffee is not genuine. Kopi Luwak coffee is an extremely expensive variety of coffee compared to regular coffee and therefore it is at a very high risk of fraudulent adulteration.

· Honey is consistently in the top 10 food frauds. As honey is one of the most expensive forms of sugar, it is commonly adulterated with other sugar syrups like corn syrup, cane sugar, etc. to increase its volume.

· Virgin olive oil that you use over your salads or vegetables might be adulterated with some other less expensive oils like sunflower oil or peanut oil. In case it is adulterated with peanut oil, it can cause serious health effects to people who are allergic to peanuts.

(iv) Food Mislabeling: Certain food products are highly-priced because they claim to be grown organically or without any fertilizers. But there is no way for a customer to validate if the product is really organic, for which he is paying those extra bucks.

Additionally, certain products are famous or are known because of their specific origin. For instance, French wine is known for its quality across the globe. So obviously when a customer sees the French Wine label on a wine bottle he will assume its origin to be France. But what if the origin of that wine is a different country say Spain. There is no way to validate the provenance of a product in the current supply chain. And this is a real scenario that came to light recently, where millions of Spanish wine bottles were being sold as French Wine.

Blockchain- The solution

Enter Blockchain. These loopholes in the food industry can be solved by permissioned Blockchain Technology. This distributed ledger technology facilitates a shared digital view of the transaction data to all the permissioned members in the food supply network. Each transaction on the ledger is immutable and is recorded only after the consensus among the members. This innate characteristic of immutability and transparency of Blockchain can really work as an enabler to build trust among the consumers.

There are many stakeholders involved in the food supply chain management and each of them will record the relevant information on the digital ledger that is immutable and decentralized, which means that there is no single server/computer where information is kept. Instead, multiple copies of data are saved on different nodes that can be seen and accessed by all other permissioned members of the network, ensuring traceability.

(i) Food Producers/Farmers: The supply chain starts with the farmers who grow our food. The information that they are required to store on the Blockchain is altitude & location where the plants are grown, irrigation treatment, growth conditions of plants like temperature, humidity, soil, fertilizers used, and other information like date of harvesting and dispatching to the next link in the chain, etc. They also need to provide the certificates if any, to prove that the food they have grown has specific characteristics like being organic or cruelty-free. This information is stored in the genesis block, i.e., the block from where Blockchain originates.

(ii) Food Processors: Next link in the chain are food processors. They transform raw food products supplied by the producers into products that meet consumers’ requirements. This process is also known as food processing. The food processed in this phase can either be in ready to eat stage or can act as a raw material for further processing by subsequent food processors in the supply chain. For this example, we will assume that the food processed is in ready to eat stage and doesn’t require any further processing.

At this stage, the food product is assigned a unique ID with a Quick Response (QR) code. With assigning a unique ID, a new transaction is created on Blockchain to claim the food processor’s ownership of the food products. The records that they are required to put on the digital ledger include their location, received date of raw materials, sampling details, analysis of the food received, processes and the materials used for manufacturing, storage conditions of the processed food, date of manufacturing, and shelf life of the food, packaging conditions of the food, dispatch date of the processed food to the next link in the chain, etc. Even the ideal temperature range and other conditions required while transportation of the processed food need to be recorded on the digital ledger. The entire information will be stored on IPFS, and its hash will be stored on the smart contract.

Blockchain-enabled food supply chain

(iii) Distributors: Distributors act as a link between food processing companies and wholesalers/retailers. The distributors receive pallets and cartons of processed food from the processors. They then verify the genuineness of the product using the assigned QR code and creates a new transaction on the Blockchain. By doing this, ownership of the product will be transferred from the food processor to the distributor. The information to be stored on the Blockchain at this stage includes: receiving date of the processed food, storage conditions, inventory details, and dispatch date to the subsequent links in the chain. The distributors then distribute the received food through various channels to the end customers. These channels can be wholesalers or retailers, who in turn provide these food products to the final consumers.

(iv) Retailers: Retailers receive these products from distributors and sell these to the end consumers. Retailers need to scan the QR code and record the information like received items, inventory details, storage details, and sales information on the ledger.

(v) Customers: The customer is the final link in the food supply chain who consumes this food; therefore, he should have full rights to see the complete journey of the food he is consuming. With Blockchain technology, he will be able to see all the information that was recorded on the digital ledger throughout its journey. It will only take him a few seconds to trace the origin of the food, its authenticity, and the journey it has taken before entering his shopping cart.

When the QR code on the food product is scanned through a smartphone, the whole history of the food with its unique ID will be shown to the customer right from its origin until it reaches the shelves of the store. The information provided will be protected against any unauthorized change as the Blockchain itself is immutable.

QR code can be scanned to know the details of the food

Every new transaction creates a separate block. The block contains the previous hash, the data, and the current hash. Thus, all the blocks are linked together with hash values. Therefore, if anyone tries to alter the contents of a block, the whole Blockchain will become invalid.

Each block contains the hash of the previous block

After verifying the product’s information, the customer can buy and make a new transaction on the Blockchain network if the product is valid or deny buying if fake product information is found in the product history.

Monitoring cold temperature during the supply chain

As discussed earlier, most of the perishable food items like milk and poultry need to be kept at a lower temperature during their transportation. And if the temperature rises above the desired range, it could spoil the food, thus, making it unfit for consumption. But today there is no way to ascertain this fact. Blockchain, together with the Internet of things or IoT, can provide the solution to assure that a food item stays at the right temperature during its whole journey and is fit for consumption.

The packages containing milk will be instrumented with an IoT-enabled temperature sensor. This sensor will record and store the temperature data on the blockchain. This means that any fluctuation in the temperature will also be recorded on the blockchain. And when a consumer scans the milk packet, he will be able to view its complete information like its provenance, its expiry date, and other key information, including the temperature conditions at which it was kept during its whole journey. Thus making him aware of the quality of the milk that he is buying.

IoT sensors record the temperature of perishable food during transportation, and any fluctuation in temperature is recorded on the Blockchain

Quality of meat products

Further, Blockchain also provides a great solution to know about the quality of animal meat products. By reading a simple QR code with a smartphone, the consumer will be able to see the complete animal details like the animal’s date of birth, antibiotics, and vaccinations that it received during its life, whether it was raised free-range, cage-free, or in a cage and even the location where the livestock was harvested.

Quick traceback of the contaminated Food

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 48 million Americans become sick because of the consumption of contaminated food. Out of these 48 million, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 lose their lives to this illness. When a foodborne disease outbreak occurs, it becomes very crucial to identify the source of contamination at the earliest possible. But with such a complex supply chain and fragmented data, the traceback is quite slow — which ends up taking many precious lives.

But with Blockchain, the provenance of a food product can be traced back within the course of a few seconds. The retailer can easily track the serial number associated with the contaminated food shipment back to the distributor and then to its original supplier. Subsequently, that supplier will immediately be flagged on the Blockchain, and everyone who has sourced that food item from that supplier would be made aware of the danger.

A more appropriate example of this situation is The Romaine Lettuce incident, which took place in 2018, where the lettuce contaminated with E.coli affected at least 200 people in 36 states of the U.S. and even lead to the death of 5 people. Contaminated canal water used for irrigation was the main cause of Lettuce getting infected with the E.coli pathogen strain. It took them months and a great deal of effort to trace the origin point of the problem. If every information would have been on a digital ledger, it would have been much easier to determine the origin of the contaminated batch of Lettuce. And once the origin is tracked, it is much easier to alert everyone and take all the lettuce off the shelves sourced from that particular location, supplier, or farm. This will save the precious lives of the consumers and will also save retailers from the financial losses which they have to bear when they take off all the food items of that category until the source is identified.

Walmart Case Study

To give you a real-life practical example of Blockchain let us discuss the Walmart case study. Walmart conducted a trackback test on a pack of mangoes in one of its stores. It took them more than 6 days to trace back the origin of those mangoes. And when the same test was conducted using Blockchain it took them a mere 2.2 seconds to find the original farm.

So you can imagine how powerful and useful this technology is for the food industry! It will help in quick food recalls and thus reducing the time consumers are at risk.

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