IBM Food Trust: Blockchain & Making It Safe To Eat Again

One of the big problems we aren’t talking about as much as we should is that there is a ton of fraud, waste, and unhealthy food in our food supply chain.  Given bad food can make us sick or even kill us, this is a growing concern of mine because I don’t like to be sick, and I’d rather not be dead. As a result, one of the efforts I’m watching is the IBM Food Trust, a global effort to assure the quality of our food supply.  

The Romain Lettuce recall is a case in point as five people have lost their lives so far as of this writing, and hundreds of people have gotten gravely ill across 35 States, and the Centers for Disease Control haven’t yet found the source of the E.coli tainted lettuce.  

This week I got an update, and the progress made gives me hope that Blockchain may be the answer to our current inability to assure much of our food supply.  

Food And Supply Channel Fraud

It amazes me how much of what we eat isn’t what we think it is.  From retailers passing off one kind of fish for another to blatant labeling falsehoods promising the food is coming from a certain region or country when it isn’t.  Not only is this putting us at risk, it penalizes honest companies because they can’t compete with firms that are lying that their cheap offerings are of equally high quality as those provided by the more expensive true premium suppliers.  

This fraud isn’t just in food either because internationally, the market is awash with counterfeit products that falsely carry premium branding.  And this false branding is far from new; I was reading a story of how in the 1800s, Native Americans were tricked into buying Colt 45s that weren’t made by Colt and had a tendency to explode and cripple the owner when first fired.    Poor quality auto parts, building materials, and medical supplies that are falsely labeled are also common, and these misrepresentations also put our lives at risk suggesting this supply channel quality problem is far bigger than just Food.  

Blockchain Applied

This supply chain assurance problem became a ready-made market for Blockchain, which is designed to assure a complex transaction across a large number of players and provide an audit trail for both the money and the merchandise.   

IBM provided several interesting reference accounts (their effort started with 11 companies and now is over 200).  DHO, which makes high-quality Olive Oil and sells under the brand Terra Delyssa had a problem in that its product marketed next to competing brands that regularly lied about the source, blend, and quality of their products.  By using IBM’s Blockchain solution, they were able to give customers a validated source for their branded oil and get those customers to care that the Oil they thought they were buying was, in fact, the oil they took home. I’ve done a bit of cooking, and bad Olive Oil can destroy a recipe and assure that whoever you are hosting says no the next time you invite them for dinner.  

Another example was Raw Seafoods.  I’ve gotten sick several times from bad fish and tend to avoid it even though I know, generally, it is good for me.  This fish fear is a common industry problem because Raw Seafoods shared that we are consuming about 1/3rd of the Seafood we should be eating to stay healthy because we largely don’t trust the quality of the fish.  Their implementation allows a fish buyer to trace the fish back to the boat and captain that caught or trapped it.  They believe that once people understand the benefit of knowing the source of the fish and can see it, they’ll be more comfortable in buying and eating it.  Though I still wonder how this benefit can be taken to the restaurant customer given a QR code on the physical cooked product would be problematic, at least for the restaurant owner or the customer that buys in a store, the benefits now are significant.  

Finally, they talked about Golden State Foods (GSF) and reported that using Blockchain had streamlined their operations and allowed them to manage inventory, better-reducing spoilage, and contamination.  Besides, they were now able to increase the granularity of the solution, so that recalls not only were faster, they were far less expensive because they weren’t tossing out good products.  

One of the vendors, Carrefour, indicated that Blockchain trancing was already boosting their sales significantly; it seems people prefer food that is less likely to make them ill or dead.  

Wrapping Up:  Differentiation By Source

Given the hostile world we live in, I’m anticipating overt attempts to contaminate food.  Blockchain could significantly help to reduce if not functionally eliminate the risk of a large scale problem of this type.  But I do think once customers see they can choose between suppliers with a validated supply chain and those whose products have far less certain sources they’ll pick the better-sourced products particularly in the Organic Food sections where fraud has also been way too prevalent.  

In the end, if we want to be safe and keep our families safe, being able to assure what we feed them is also safe will be a critical part of their, and our, survival strategy.  I travel a lot and having dysentery while on a plane is the exact opposite of fun. (I once had a bathroom emergency while the plane was landing, thank god I had an aisle seat otherwise I’d have another memory I’d like to lose.  I’m also kind of surprised I wasn’t tackled while sprinting to the front of the plane with what was likely a crazed look of panic on my face).  

The good news is that food companies using IBM’s Blockchain technology are getting this sorted, the bad news is that this effort needs to get a lot bigger a lot faster so I never again have to try to break the sound barrier running in a plane while it is landing.  I know that given a choice between buying a product where I could assure the source and from another where I couldn’t, I’d always pick the vendor I could assure. I think this use of Blockchain may become one of the biggest differentiators between suppliers coming to market; I wish it would happen more quickly.