What if you ate wood thinking it was food? In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that consumers ate what they thought was 100% Parmesan cheese produced by Castle Cheese Inc. that was really wood pulp.
Think such an event is unusual? Last year, horse meat was passed off as minced beef. And what’s sold as olive oil, milk, honey and other goods is, usually, cheap knock-offs, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Food Science. Food fraud also occurs when your food is diluted, mislabelled or misrepresented, tampered with, or substituted with another product.
Ideally, we’d have informed consumers who buy from trustworthy sources. But not everyone has the know-how, time, money, or resources to do this. So is there another solution?
Change comes through market clamor
“The work that we have to do for the current systems has to come from pressures that are put on by the market,” says Angela Abshier, team member at DNA and advisor to decentralized Rice Exchange, a platform where participants trade and commercialize rice. “The demand will come when people have more information…And we’re never going to reach scalability, we’re never going to reach the masses until we make it easier. We have to get the rest of the population on board and participating. And we have to make it easy.”
“The demand will come when people have more information.”
Upton Sinclair’s expose, The Jungle, on the meat industry ended in a public outcry which led to reforms, including the Meat Inspection Act. Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma on our American diet catapulted a movement of food consciousness and is taught in schools across the country.
Abshier says, “We need to let people know exactly where their food comes from, and how it was grown or raised, and what they’re actually eating, because it seems like so much of the problem in society right now is that there are so many layers between where the food comes from and when we eat it. There’s all this mystery going on.”
So how do you get this transparency? Abshier believes blockchain technology, which The Economist dubs “The Trust Machine,” will play a large role. “If blockchain makes a direct line between where your food comes from and what you’re actually eating, that could have a significant change on what people eat and what they want to eat,” she says. “Hopefully, by tracking the food, we’ll raise awareness of the treatment and the level of health in the environments where the food is created, raised, or produced. So we’ll know if something is sick so it doesn’t pass…It’s just the possibility of transparency. If [blockchain] is good enough for banks, why isn’t it good enough for food?”
“If blockchain makes a direct line between where your food comes from and what you’re actually eating, that could have a significant change on what people eat and what they want to eat.”
How will it work?
Blockchain is a decentralized ledger strung between a community of participants, unaffected by bias of any one individual or organization. Data is introduced by objective users and corroborated by the network’s global community. Further, users record and store transactions in a way that makes it impossible to change, or remove, this data later on. Oracles, which provide real-time information from outside sources, reinforce trust.
A recent report from Juniper Research, a market intelligence firm in the U.K., says blockchain-based food provenance apps are likely to become extremely popular. Because blockchain traces food from the very beginning of the food chain, you’ll know exactly what you’re eating and where it originates.
Abshier points to HINTchain, a platform that builds a bridge between food companies and consumers, as an example of how blockchain may make a difference. It aims to decentralize consumer data in the food industry and give it back to users via a “Personalized Food Profile,” which is like a fingerprint that tracks a user’s tastes, eating behaviors, and health conditions. The goal is to transform the typical retail food industry into an AI-driven “smart” industry. Abshier says, “Blockchain is going to contribute to efficiencies and how food is tracked and delivered. And hopefully by tracking the food, we’ll raise awareness to the treatment and the level of health in the environments where food is being raised or produced.”
A blockchain food network like that considered by the South Indian state of Kerala or by Walmart encrypts and certifies each product with its own date map and country of origin. Wine from Peru cannot be mislabelled as wine from Paris. Through a simple QR code and smartphone, all you need to do is scan an item at the point of sale for a complete history of the food’s journey from farm to fork. You’ll know that mayonnaise you buy is really made from eggs, milk, and oil — and nothing else. Ethical, clear, accurate, and clean. Our best option for spreading food safety in the U.S. and beyond may be the blockchain.
Our best option for spreading food safety in the U.S. and beyond may be the blockchain.
According to Abshier, it makes sense that an industry known for disruption would be open to a new approach to food. She says, “I probably find more vegans and vegetarians in the Blockchain space than any other industry I’ve been in. You’ve got to be open to be in Blockchain. You’ve got to lay down what you believe and be open to the possibility of something else. If you can do that for technology, you’re going to be able to do that for everything else in your life.”