Blockchain Technology: Transparency, Traceability And Food Safety

“Transparency” became the buzzword beginning in 2015; food companies implemented transparency initiatives in response to “lack of consumer trust”. A Trace One™ survey of over 3,000 shoppers across 9 countries concluded that 91% of respondents said it’s important to them to know where food comes from, but 62% said they’re not provided with enough information about what’s in their food and its origins.1 Tyson Foods, for example, wants to assure supply-chain transparency with accompanying educational information so their customers can make informed decisions at the time of purchase.2 Saying they want to make their brands more transparent, Campbell Soup, Nestle and Kraft Heinz, in October 2017, announced commitments to improve animal welfare for their poultry.3

In October 2016, Walmart conducted a pilot study (called the Hyperledger Project) designed to make pork products in China safer by tracking swine/pork shipping information, including farm origination details, batch numbers and storage temperatures on a secure blockchain. Frank Yiannis of Walmart reported that the safer conditions resulting from a more transparent, accurate record of supply chain transactions on a blockchain could create benefits including safer food, enhanced consumer trust, enhanced flow to provide fresher products to customers, fresher and faster deliveries that could reduce food waste in the home, and more.4

Blockchain is a digital ledger technology (i.e., an electronic book-keeping system) that locks in shipment details (data points are captured, stored, transferred, and accounted for) and value flow at each point in the supply path. It offers a new way to track items or transactions using a shared digital “ledger” that is significantly more efficient than the current method for logging and sharing such information.5 Blockchain technology is being used to increase transparency in the trading of Bitcoin (a cryptocurrency); by four banks, UBS Group and IBM for global goods trade; by two companies that buy and sell oil; by the government of Ukraine to manage crop-land; and by a Chinese company growing/processing beef in the US6, 7, 8.

Three problems in the food value chain that blockchain could help solve are: (a) traceability and food safety, (b) price discovery, and (c) 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.9 IBM is working with Walmart, Nestle, Tyson, Unilever and McCormick to identify ways they can incorporate blockchain; the technology is 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. In most food-supply chains, it might take weeks to figure out where it went from source to destination, and in some cases, the source may not be known. On a blockchain it takes just seconds.7

Blockchain is a great tool to enable traceability–if the product proceeds through the supply path in discrete “lots”. It should work well for poultry because the “integrators” (e.g., Tyson, Pilgrim, Perdue, Cargill) own and control every facet of production from hatching, to growing, to harvest. It is much less likely, but still possible, that blockchain technology will find use in parts of the food industry–like cattle/carcasses/endproducts–where so much sorting, commingling and transfers of ownership occur.

Cargill will soon be offering 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.10 Such food transparency is made possible because of the traceability achieved by implementation of blockchain technology. Cargill recently announced that blockchain technology will soon be used for its “Birth To Burger” beef transparency initiative.11

Walmart brought blockchain technology to the forefront by conducting the pork trial in China (in 2016) and the trial with IBM, Dole and Driscoll’s on sliced mangoes (in 2017).12 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 necessary to enable a broad-based food safety ecosystem 13 and to create a standards-based method of collecting data about the origin, safety and authenticity of food.14 Farm origination details, batch numbers, factory and processing data, expiration dates and shipping details are digitally connected (within 2 seconds) to food items and entered in the blockchain network at each step of the farm-to-fork process.13

Frank Yiannis (Walmart) has said: (a) Blockchain technology won’t just benefit Walmart and its customers; farmers like the idea that it can be a solution–clearing their good name in the event of a broadspectrum foodborne illness outbreak so they can continue to sell their products.15 (b) We’re convinced that when the food system considers the cost of foodborne disease, the cost of recalls, the cost of food waste, and the cost of food fraud, this technology should save–not cost–money.15 (c) Blockchain technology enables a new era of end-to-end transparency in the global food system, equivalent to shining a light on food ecosystem participants that will further promote responsible actions and behaviors.12

Ed Treacy (Produce Marketing Association) says “Blockchain technology should be useful for sharing food safety information like results of certifications and audits, which blockchain allows to be processed as data instead of just a PDF.”15

Ashley Nickle (The Packer) says “Blockchain technology might not have prevented the drama associated with the recent E. coli outbreak (Canada, but not the United States, blamed Romaine lettuce) but it could have contributed greatly to making such a food-safety investigation faster and easier.”12


1 Zboraj, Marian. 2016. Transparency. Food Safety & Quality (January edition).

2 Shaffer, Erica. 2017. Consumer demand for transparency. Meat + Poultry (November 1 issue).

3 Berry, Donna and Keith Nunes. 2017. Consumers expect transparency. Meat + Poultry (November 21 issue)

4 del Castillo, Michael. 2016. Walmart wants to apply blockchain to other products beyond pork. CoinDesk (October 25 issue).

5 Rometty, Ginna. 2016. How blockchain will change your life. The Wall Street Journal (November 8 issue).

6 Shell, Adam. 2017. Bitcoin futures trading may signal move to mainstream. USA Today (December 12 issue).

7 Bloomberg News. 2017. Bitcoin points way to “massive change” for commodity trading. Bloomberg News (December 15 issue).

8 Brown, Matthew. 2017. China’s largest online retailer to buy Montana beef. Associated Press (November 9 issue).

9 Barnard, Janette. 2017. Blockchain: The food chain and the billion dollar problems to be solved. Meatingplace (November 17 issue).

10 Meat + Poultry. 2017. Cargill uses blockchain technology for turkey. Meat + Poultry (December edition).

11 Kelly, Susan. 2017. Cargill aims to develop “Birth To Burger” beef audit. Meatingplace (November 2 issue).

12 The Packer. 2017. Wal-Mart, Kroger, Dole, Driscoll’s join blockchain collaboration. The Packer (August 23 issue).

13 Meat + Poultry. 2017. Blockchain food safety collaboration forms in China. Meat + Poultry (December 15 issue).

14 Johnston, Tom. 2014. Walmart, tech giants partner on blockchain food safety effort in China. Meatingplace (December 15 issue).

15 Nickle, Ashley. 2017. Produce industry keeping tabs on blockchain. The Packer (December 29 issue).

16 Nickle, Ashley. 2018. Outbreaks underscore harsh supply chain realities. The Packer (January 12 issue).

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