IBM blockchain food safety programme attracts global firms

A host of major firms including Nestlé, Unilever and Walmart have established a collaboration with tech giant IBM to explore how the global food supply chain can benefit from blockchain technology.

The announcement was made by Tuesday (22 August) by IBM, which insists that blockchain – an open source digital ledger that facilitates secure online transactions – can help improve food traceability by providing trusted information on the origin and state of food.

It is estimated that 400,000 people die each year due to contaminated food. Weeks can pass before the precise point of contamination is identified, resulting in further illness, lost revenue and wasted products.

IBM claims the new joint programme could enable all participants in the supply chain, including growers, suppliers, retailers and consumers, to quickly trace a contaminated product to its source and stem the spread of illnesses.

“Unlike any technology before it, blockchain is transforming the way like-minded organisations come together and enabling a new level of trust based on a single view of the truth,” said IBM blockchain general manager Marie Wieck.

“Our work with organizations across the food ecosystem, as well as IBM’s new platform, will further unleash the vast potential of this exciting technology, making it faster for organisations of all sizes and in all industries to move from concept to production to improve the way business gets done.”

Other major retailers and food companies to have signed up to the collaborative project include Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McLane Company and Tyson Foods.

‘New era of transparency’

IBM has introduced its own blockchain platform which allows multiple parties to jointly develop, govern, operate and secure networks. The tech company also offers a consultancy service, which has reportedly helped major shipping and retail organisation to improve food safety traceability by 99%.

IBM claims that parallel trials with Walmart in China and the US have demonstrated that the technology can be used to track a product from the farm to the retail shelf in seconds, rather than days or weeks. According to Walmart, the trials also served to highlight that food supply chain stakeholders view food safety as a collaborative, rather than a competitive, issue.

“As an advocate for greater transparency in the food system to benefit customers, Walmart looks forward to expanding on our initial work by collaborating with others to accelerate exploration on how this technology can be used as a more effective food traceability and food safety tool,” said, Walmart vice president, food safety, Frank Yiannas.

“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 behaviours. It also allows all participants to share information rapidly and with confidence across a strong trusted network. This is critical to ensuring that the global food system remains safe for all.” 

Blockchain is viewed as one of the ‘essential eight’ emerging technologies by PwC that will play a crucial role in tackling issues around climate and biodiversity. The technology could facilitate peer-to-peer energy sharing and trading on digital platforms, a market which is reportedly set for take-off. 

George Ogleby

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