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Blockchain can help reduce large-scale food recalls due to contamination fears

 Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Henry Avocado Corporation, a California-based avocado company, recalled shipments early this week that it had sent out to six states in the U.S., after fears of its avocados being contaminated with bacteria that could cause major health risks. The bacterium under the scanner is Listeria monocytogenes, a microorganism that can cause severe infections in children, those who are immunity-deficient and older people, which could sometimes end up being a fatal affliction.

The company in its statement mentioned that it voluntarily recalled the avocado shipments sold in bulk in retail stores, as a routine government inspection in its California packing facility tested positive for the bacteria. The company has exerted caution in removing the crates off shelves, even though there have been no reported cases of illness caused by consuming avocados from this specific batch.

Henry Avocado has recalled its California-grown conventional and organic avocados that were packed in California, from the states of Arizona, California, Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin. However, avocados that were imported from Mexico and distributed by the company are not affected and continue to be sold at retail outlets.

In a similar incident last week, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods had recalled 69,000 pounds of chicken strips after a couple of consumers reported that they found metal pieces in the product. Though this was an isolated incident, the company had to recall all the items that were produced in a single plant in Rogers, Arkansas, that included 65,313 pounds of Tyson’s fully cooked chicken strips and crispy chicken strips that were sold in 25-ounce bags. The company also recalled 3,780 pounds of fully cooked chicken breast strips that were sold in 20-pound boxes.

Though Henry Avocado and Tyson Foods deal with two distinct food products and had completely different reasons for recalling their produce, the extent of the recall cannot be ignored. Discarding hundreds of pounds worth of consumables for a few pounds of contaminated items is highly inefficient and if done frequently, could end up affecting a  company’s bottom line.

Avoiding a generic recall is possible if companies turn towards blockchain for help. The inherent ability of blockchain to bring visibility into supply chains allows businesses to monitor every step in the journey of its produce from “farm to fork,” helping pinpoint issues as and when they arise.

For example, assume that a supply chain of wine bottles is put through a blockchain-based framework. If a few crates of wine were found to contain contaminants, the management would be able to precisely spot the nodal point within the supply chain when and where the contaminants entered the product, and could swiftly take action to remove the contaminated cases from the supply chain. This would save the winery from a variety of issues, including having to recall wine en masse.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) can be used in track-and-trace, with blockchain acting as the framework that data arising at different intervals from the supply chain gets added in real-time. Technological advancements have shrunk the sizes of IIoT products to smaller than a grain of salt, and thus they can be attached to crates and bags sold in bulk, helping pinpoint items if there is a breach in quality.

To make sure there is widespread adoption of blockchain within food supply chains, it is critical to create open standards that can act as a bedrock framework for developing blockchain-based tracking systems.

The Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA) is a consortium that has made this a reality, bringing together hundreds of stakeholders in the supply chain space to create open standards that companies can use as a platform for their blockchain pilots. Companies’ blockchain pilots, if successful, can be scaled up across the breadth of operations.  

However, within the realm of blockchain, caution still must be exerted. As companies establish a framework for all stakeholders within a food supply chain to adhere to specific regulations and quality control, the system would also need to be exhaustively audited to make sure product track-and-trace works seamlessly.