By Pete Harris, Co-Founder and Research Principal
In a November 1 memo to the fresh produce industry, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) did not mention blockchain by name. However, it certainly fits the “state-of-the-art technology” characterization that the agency did encourage the industry to adopt to deal with food contamination outbreaks and subsequent recalls.
Sadly, the memo did not come soon enough to address an E. coli outbreak that was reported this week (across the U.S. and in Canada), and which is currently being investigated. At time of writing this blog, a source of the outbreak has not been located. To play it safe, the FDA has called for the removal and disposal of all romaine lettuce in retail stores and other food channels.
This current E. coli outbreak is just the latest that the FDA has had to address. Since 2006, there have been an average of three multistate outbreaks in the U.S. every year. The FDA memo was actually in part triggered by a major outbreak this past spring/summer, which resulted in 210 illnesses across 36 states, 96 hospitalizations and five deaths.
As well as providing much detail on that outbreak and its probable cause, the memo also asserted the importance of collaboration between the FDA, states and the leafy greens industry, and noted that “our approaches to prevent leafy greens contamination must change to protect public health.”
In short, the FDA wants the industry and state regulators (in particular in Arizona and California where the majority of leafy greens produce is grown) to improve their supply chain processes to prevent or better manage further outbreaks. In that respect, the memo noted that the regulator “strongly encourages the leafy greens industry to adopt traceability best practices and state-of-the-art technology to assure quick and easy access to key data elements from farm to fork when leafy greens are involved in a potential recall or outbreak.”
Certainly, blockchain technology – and the tamper-proof, shared and distributed ledger that it provides – can underpin produce traceability (and hence recall efforts). This is especially the case when it is combined with internet-connected sensors that collect data from as much of the farm-to-fork supply chain as possible. Fuller details of the role and capabilities of blockchain for food supply chains can be found in the latest Chain Business Insights eBook Blockchain and the Future of Food. The eBook also describes the basics and dynamics of food supply chains, provides snapshots of a number of current successful blockchain/food supply chain projects and points to challenges and opportunities for more widespread adoption.
One project snapshot in the eBook focuses on Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, which was an early blockchain tester. It is now in live production with blockchain technology developed by IBM to provide track/trace capabilities for a number of food products. Notably, the company recently contacted all of its supply chain partners for leafy greens, mandating them to adopt the IBM blockchain platform that it deployed (and which has been widely released by IBM as its Food Trust product), and to do so by the fall of 2019.
For its part, IBM has been busy offering Food Trust to other retailers and supply chain players, some of which are members of a consortium formed by Walmart. The retail giant recognized that an effective food safety technology response would require industry-wide adoption, where even competitors were linked into a common system. That “coopetition” approach is the kind of business model that blockchain “trust networks” were designed to implement. The Walmart consortium includes the likes of Nestle, Unilever, Dole, Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Driscoll’s, Tyson Food and Golden State Foods. The major international grocer Carrefour is also adopting the cloud-delivered Food Trust, after successfully testing its own blockchain technology.
Meanwhile, the FDA is about to get some expert help when it comes to blockchain and food supply chains. It has hired Walmart’s VP of Food Safety Frank Yiannas to fill the new role of Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, where his responsibility will include dealing with food contamination outbreaks. If anyone knows about successfully rolling out this state-of-the-art technology to improve food safety, it’s Yiannas.
Read more about how blockchain is changing
the food industry in our new eBook.