Food-borne illnesses can be deadly. Yet when people hear about a food recall — even for something serious like E.coli — they usually determine whether or not they recently purchased that item and move on, not stopping to consider what the situation implies about the U.S. food supply chain.
Food industry executives are, of course, keenly aware that these events are more frequent than desired, and that the process to track contamination sources and mitigate these crises is more manual than most realize.
In fact, the average food-recall process takes seven days from discovering a contaminated product to finding its source. During that time, a large number of people can become ill, and some could die. The first reason for the lengthy process is a lack of automation. Most of the time, upon hearing that a product (say, fish) recently delivered to your business (say, a restaurant) has tested positive for E.coli, the procedure is to call or email the individual at your supplier in charge of handling recalls. He or she is inundated with incoming calls (and hopefully not on vacation) while busy trying to speak with the fisherman to determine where the issue originated.
The second reason is a lack of shared data. Each link in the food chain, from originator (e.g., a farm) to the processor, distributor, wholesaler and retailer has its own electronic system for tracking deliveries in and out. None are linked to each other, nor would it be practical to do so using standard integration methods. Not to mention that integration isn’t something food suppliers are interested in; most consider their supplier and customer lists a trade secret.
Clearly, more automation, connection, and transparency is needed in the supply chain to limit the number of people eating contaminated food. IBM and others have shown that electronic systems can reduce the recall process from days to seconds. That means that as soon as a product tests positive for a contaminant, the Food and Drug Administration could issue a recall to every link in the food chain, including an alert to retailers with product on shelves, and fewer (if any) consumers would be affected. Food suppliers stand to save a considerable amount of money as well: the average U.S. recall costs involved companies at least $10 million.
Blockchain Reduces Food Recalls
Blockchain — the same technology that fuels Bitcoin — is the solution to the U.S.’s food-supply contamination issues. Blockchain is designed to securely store data from multiple sources and make it easily accessible in real time while keeping it immutable.
Blockchain systems are easy to use and often available at multiple price levels, allowing even small producers to participate. For companies most affected by food recalls, blockchain tracking systems offer a way to quickly, easily and accurately trace the source of food contamination and immediately alert all downstream vendors. That includes not only issues such as contamination at a farm or processor, but problems related to temperature regulation in a truck or warehouse.
With blockchain systems, the product-tracing process is similar to consumers receiving text or e-mail updates about their packages as they travel from the warehouse through various trucking distribution centers and then to their home. In some cases, the detailed information on potential points of contamination contained in a blockchain system can prevent a recall altogether.
Beyond Recalls: Smoothing Out the Chain
The appeal of such a system is obvious from the standpoint of saving lives and reducing costs due to recalls. But the benefits extend beyond that, including a way for distributors to reduce food waste and for retailers to gain trust with customers by knowing precise information about the freshness and origin point of produce, meat, fish and other items. Consumers in the Gen Z age group are highly aware of food-sustainability issues, and blockchain systems provide a way to gain favor by providing sustainability-related details about their products.
Taking things a step further, blockchain food-tracking systems have the potential to restore consumer confidence and, thus, smooth out the supply chain. When large weather events threaten, those who wait too long to go to the grocer find empty dairy cases and bare shelves where bottled water used to be. We saw this play out on a large scale when the pandemic hit, with supply chains snarled when consumer demand spiked. Blockchain technology could restore confidence to the point where panic buying is greatly reduced.
With fewer food recalls and fuller store shelves, U.S. consumers can enjoy shopping while producers and distributors breathe easier, knowing exactly where their products are and when they will arrive — contaminant free — at retailers.
Pramod Sajja is chief executive officer and president of Farm to Plate.
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