Blockchain technology could revolutionize the way we buy our food—but what exactly is it?
Credit: Photo: Connie Zhou for IBM

Grocery shopping for certain foods can be stressful. Where is this meat from? What kind of fish is that, exactly? And how do you know it's not part of one of the many national safety recalls?

Often times, we’re left in the dark about crucial components of the food production process. And unless we’re willing to pay a premium at the farmer's’ market, many of us are forced into the uneasy position of trusting the safety of the food we see on grocery store shelves, whether it’s fish, beef, or chicken—without being able to ask very many questions.

Even if it’s labeled as such, sometimes that grouper is not actually grouper. And there are cases, such as with this recent ground beef scare—where the USDA failed to inspect nearly 7,000 pounds, but it was still sold at grocery stores for a while. In the worst cases, tainted foods may lead to life-threatening illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli. Clearly, food traceability is a serious concern.

However, thanks to a new breed of technology called blockchain, improved food safety may not be as far away as we think. With the simple scan of a specialized QR code, you’ll be able to access invaluable information about the “life” of a certain food product—including whether it’s safe to eat.

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Blockchain technology, while enigmatic-sounding, is the backbone of technologies like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. It works mainly by tracking transactions between multiple parties, and ensuring that each record isn’t tampered with or altered. This is essential for something like a digital currency, but could be invaluable in helping foods—like chicken or fish—pass through the dozens of hands necessary to go from the ocean or farm to the grocery shelf, while carrying along all the necessary information about where they've been, and what has happened to them.

The great value of blockchain is that it makes data much less vulnerable to being hacked or lost. Because each “block,” or record, contains a timestamp and a link to the previous block, a blockchain is a traceable, secured database of information.  

By keeping a record of all aspects of the food production process, blockchain can eliminate the gap between producer and consumer. In fact, some news outlets, such as Forbes, suggest that blockchain technology has the potential to completely change the way we eat.

And this isn't just theoretical. Carrefour, a major French grocery chain, has announced that they will soon use blockchain technology to track the lives of every chicken sold under their house brand. (The story was covered in Bloomberg Businessweek.) Blockchain records every change a chicken undergoes from hatchery to producer to processor—and ensures that this information isn’t ever modified. Consumers will be able to access all data points associated with the chicken, from the date of birth to the name of its farmer to even its departure date to the slaughterhouse. Consumers can easily access this information by downloading an app to their smartphones and scanning a QR code found on the food label.  

Similar to Carrefour's strategy, TE-FOOD, which describes itself as a “farm-to-table traceability solution,” works with clients such as French grocery store Auchan and VISSAN, a top meat producer in Vietnam. By requiring each step in the food supply chain—whether it’s the farmer, wholesaler, or retailer—to sign off on the previous one, TE-FOOD allows any contamination to be easily traced directly to its source. Consumers can also access detailed sourcing information about food products by scanning a QR code on the label.

Carrefour isn’t the first major company to use blockchain technology. A 2017 press release from tech company IBM announced a major collaboration with Nestle, Tyson, Dole Foods, Driscoll's, Golden State Foods, McCormick and Company, Unilever, Walmart, and Kroger to develop similar food traceability software.

Blockchain technology may also be a valuable tool in tackling the food waste problem. To put the issue in perspective, the USDA reports that of the available food supply, nearly 133 billion pounds of it was wasted in 2010, translating to $161 billion in losses. Food contamination has traditionally been difficult to track, and grocery stores will often dispose of large stocks of food as a precautionary measure, even though they may still be perfectly fit for consumption. Because blockchain quickly traces contaminated food to a specific region or farm, grocers will only need to remove products that match the source.

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Lastly, blockchain technology could help lessen the economic burden placed on the U.S. from foodborne illnesses each year. A 2015 study by Dr. Robert Scharff from the University of Ohio found that foodborne illnesses cost the U.S. an average of $55 billion annually, in part from medical treatment and from lost productivity at work.

Despite all of its positives, Bloomberg notes that blockchain isn’t a perfect system quite yet. Because each data “block” is manually entered throughout the production process, this does leave margin for human error.

Regardless, blockchain is certainly a positive step towards greater food transparency, decreased food waste, and fewer foodborne illnesses. In the meantime, we recommend staying up-to-date with current food recalls by signing up for the FDA’s email subscription service or by visiting the government organization's Recalls, Market Withdrawals, and Safety Alerts page.