In response to outbreaks of foodborne illness and consumer concerns, Walmart announced its blockchain technology implementation in September 2018 in an effort to ensure food traceability and safety. The superstore completed an 18-month pilot, during which time they tracked everything from mangoes to chicken. “There is no question that there is a strong public-health and business-case for enhanced food traceability,” Walmart said.
Blockchain: A digital ledger that allows manufacturers to connect and trade directly with the buyer.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that foodborne illness affects about 48 million people in the US every year. Earlier this year, more than 200 people became ill and five deaths were attributed to an E.coli outbreak in romaine lettuce. Almost three months later, the CDC announced that the outbreak appeared to be over. With blockchain, a supplier could see which farms sourced the affected product and quickly stop the supply to operators and retailers. Using blockchain accelerates the response to an outbreak and quickly stops the spread of foodborne diseases.
The pilot’s results were compelling. Whereas it once took days, or even weeks, to trace food from a store to its source, blockchain reduced that time to mere minutes. Following the pilot’s success, Walmart has begun requiring suppliers to get on board. Direct suppliers, those who sell various leaf vegetables directly to Walmart’s or Sam’s Club stores in the US from farms and fields under their direct supervision, must start collecting information (such as field locations and harvest times) and uploading it to the IBM Food Trust Network by Jan. 31. Suppliers that source the produce from third parties have until the end of September 2019 to draw those partners into the initiative.
With at least 50,000 SKUs to manage, this is not an easy category to manage.”We could have picked a product that was simple,” said Frank Yiannis, VP of Food Safety and Health for Walmart. “This was a good category and generally safe, when you consider the per-capita consumption … It was a logical place to start.”
Suppliers will upload data about their foods to the blockchain, enabling products to be quickly traced to their source. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that other companies are working with blockchain technology in similar ways, including Nestlé, Unilever and Driscoll’s Inc.
Driscoll’s cites multiple advantages to using blockchain, such as enhanced food safety, the ability to get food on shelves faster and waste reduction. “We want to drill down and continuously improve and understand: If we fell flat somewhere, why? Or if we did really well somewhere else, why? And then constantly refine our operations to be better,” said Tim Jackson, Driscoll’s VP of Food Safety and Compliance.
Blockchain may be the latest in a long string of new technology, but its uses in foodservice and retail are undeniable. Early adopters like Walmart see the potential and are eager to put it to work. “Walmart is not chasing blockchain because it’s a new fad or it’s a shiny coin,” Yiannas said. “The romaine incident [when 200 people fell ill in 2018 due to contaminated lettuce] is a perfect example of a real-world scenario where if tools were available it might be managed a bit more effectively.”