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Blockchain use cases and the very bad lettuce one month later

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The first food poisoning cases came to light in mid March—eight patrons of fast-food restaurants in New Jersey suffered bloody diarrhea and cramps that sent them rushing to hospitals.

By late April, FreightWaves covered the outbreak update considering the issue through the lens of how blockchain technology could help tackle the complex “farm to table,” supply chain issue. Turns out, of blockchain’s many potential (and developing) applications, few could be as game-changing as what it would mean for the food industry.

Update on the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad lettuce

The FDA is investigating a multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses linked to romaine lettuce sourced from the winter growing areas in and around the Yuma growing region. The product is no longer being harvested or distributed from this area, and it is unlikely that any romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region is still available in stores or restaurants due to its 21-day shelf life.

The CDC reports that 172 people in 32 states became ill. These people reported becoming ill in the time period of March 13, 2018 to May 2, 2018. There were 75 reported hospitalizations and one death.

The FDA has identified Harrison Farms of Yuma, Arizona, as the grower and sole source of the whole-head romaine lettuce that sickened several people in an Alaskan correctional facility, but has not determined where in the supply chain the contamination occurred.

One of the main issues is that the traceback investigation indicates this outbreak cannot be explained by a single grower, harvester, processor, or distributor. While traceback continues, the FDA will focus on trying to identify factors that contributed to contamination of romaine across multiple supply chains. The agency is examining all possibilities, including that contamination may have occurred at any point along the growing, harvesting, packaging, and distribution chain before reaching consumers. 

The FDA says it is continuing to investigate the outbreak and will share more information as it becomes available. It’s only a matter of time before the next outbreak occurs. There was another similar (but not related outbreak last November that lasted through December 2017) also linked to leafy greens consumption. These are only the bigger ones that the media widely reports on. According to the L.A. Times’ Geoffrey Mohan, food-borne illnesses break out around 900 times a year. “Each time, investigators have to work their way backward, one link at a time, from victims to fields, tracing multiple paths across separate companies and sometimes across international borders,” he writes.

Also, if safety issues don’t get our unilateral attention, perhaps simple economics will. The Pew Charitable Trust research center reports that acute foodborne illnesses cost the United States an estimated $152 billion per year in healthcare, workplace and other economic losses, according to a report published today by the Produce Safety Project (PSP).

Meeting the blockchain 5-point test

First, the need for a breakthrough technology in the food supply chain space is urgent enough for health reasons, but it also meets all five of Paul Brody’s criteria for blockchain viability. Brody of Ernst and Young (EY) has been working on blockchain since the very earliest IBM development in 1995. If you answer “yes” to only three of the criteria, you could probably use a blockchain solution:

(1) Are there multiple parties in this ecosystem? (2) Is it establishing trust between all the parties and issue? (3) Are we securing the ownership or management of a finite resource? (4) Do all the parties need to work with shared, complex business logic? (5) Does the process depend on an extended business network?

The need is there, but is the technology ready? Brody suggests it’s closer than we may think. People think we’re in the early stages of blockchain, Brody says, but we’re past that stage. We’re entering the beginnings of adoption and maturity.

“Today there are private blockchains and solutions, tactical ROI, driven by industry leaders and evolving ecosystems. Tomorrow is going to be public networks, general purpose transactions, open to all with dynamic ecosystems,” he says, speaking at the Transparency18 event in Atlanta last week.

Who is taking the lead and where are we now?

After our article last month, FreightWaves spoke with a number of blockchain startups, and the general message is that providing solutions in the food supply chain space is its very complexity—ironically part of the very reason for a blockchain solution. It seems that a number of smaller players are in the game of developing smaller, private blockchains where the data points (or nodes) are important and necessary, but also far less complex. Often, too, these companies may work with an IoT company to deepen their coordination and bolster their scalability. They’re just nowhere near being able to handle the potential dozens and, even in some cases, hundreds, of transaction points.

So, it seems for now it’s the biggest players who are breaking the most ground.

“I often describe that as food traceability at the speed of thought—as quickly as you can think it, we can know it,” said Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety for Walmart, which is scaling up an IBM-driven pilot blockchain that already includes top suppliers such as Unilever, Nestle and Danone.

Not long ago, Yiannas, who is in charge of the integrity of food in Walmart’s $280-billion grocery empire, would have brushed off the notion of an instantly “knowable” and verifiable food chain as fantasy.

Walmart brought blockchain technology to the forefront now two times. First, by conducting the pork trial in China in 2016, and second with sliced mangoes in 2017 with IBM, Dole, and Driscoll. It has now formed the Blockchain Food Safety Alliance with IBM, and the Tsinghu University National Engineering Laboratory for E-Commerce to develop standards and partnerships to enable a food safety ecosystem, and to create a standards-based method of collecting data about the origin, safety and authenticity of food. Farm origination details, batch numbers, factory and processing data, expiration dates, and shipping details are digitally connecte–within at least two seconds–to food items and entered into the blockchain at each step.

Cargill will soon offer consumers Honeysuckle White turkeys produced by family farmers. In select markets, consumers will be able to text or enter an on-package code to access the farm’s location (by state and county), view the family farm story, see photos from the farm, and read a message from the farmer, according to Meat + Poultry.

In other words, “it’s all happening.” Just maybe not as fast as everyone hopes.

While blockchain runs the gambit from enthusiasts who believe their digital crypotech is going to take over the world to finding some 187 things blockchain is supposed to fix, it also has plenty of skeptics who just refuse to believe the hype. It’s easy to get lost in the hype, no doubt.

At the same time, however, there are sober, driven, productive teams all over the world proactively seeking real solutions in some of the most viable spaces that desperately need the transformation. From the 35,000-foot view, few spaces are more ripe for innovation than the trade and logistics one. It just takes a slightly closer look to see how much more productive, efficient, and, yes, safe, our food industry will be once a widely accepted public blockchain is among us.

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