Blockchain and the case of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Romaine lettuce

  (Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Federal health officials warn you not to eat any romaine lettuce unless you know where it's from, as the E. coli outbreak spreads across the country. The CDC advisory now includes whole heads and hearts of romaine lettuce, along with chopped and bagged romaine and salad mixes that include romaine.

While the government believes that the lettuce is from the Yuma, Arizona region, it doesn't know specifically who grew, supplied or distributed the contaminated vegetables.

Today, when an outbreak or recall occurs, each participant must disclose their product’s path one step forward and one step back. Regulatory bodies and retailers must take that data and piece it together manually to determine the source of the issue. The process can take days or weeks. In some cases, the source may not be known.

According to Bloomberg, three problems in the food value chain that blockchain could help solve are: (1) traceability and food safety, (2) price discovery, and (3) food waste reduction. Because of its ability to improve traceability, blockchain lends itself to improving food safety both from a preventive standpoint as well as drastically reducing reaction time in the case of a recall.

Using blockchain, digital ledger tech locking in shipment data, that process could be improved upon from days to mere seconds. Data captured, stored, transferred, and accounted for at each point in the supply path in real-time. Track items or transactions using a shared digital ledger significantly more efficient than any current method for logging and sharing information.

In fact, it’s already happening in various sectors of the food industry. 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. Also, according to Meatingplace, Cargill recently announced that blockchain technology will soon be used for its “Birth to Burger” beef transparency initiative.

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, JD.com 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.

Blockchain is also a big selling point for the global food industry to identify food fraud by identifying fraudulent ingredients and to trace the source of contamination during product recalls, such as the mysterious case of the currently very bad, no good romaine.

Comprehensive, national recalls are expensive and can be catastrophic for reputations--not the least of which are numerous hospitalizations and serious health issues. However, heightened public awareness isn’t the only reason for more frequent instances of food contamination. The global food production system is more complex than ever, with products coming from around the world than ever before.

The latest case of the E. coli outbreak is another example of the impressive capabilities already at our disposal. It is now a matter of comprehensive and intentional collaboration and compliance between parties, not the least of which are ag companies creating guiding principles for their own transparency use cases, whether the information is agronomic, land, farm management, machine, weather, or livestock. All data points can help secure the chain.

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