Each year, roughly 48 million Americans fall ill because of foodborne illnesses. Of those who fall ill, 128,000 are hospitalized and 300 die. For most of human history, determining the source of the contamination has been extremely difficult, if not impossible. And even if tracking down the origin of contamination is possible, it is a timely process that can take weeks, in which time many people could potentially be harmed. But thanks to the blockchain technology, contaminated produce that could potentially result in widespread foodborne illness is now easier to trace and thus, easier to prevent than ever before.
By the end of January 2020, California-based produce companies wanting to do business with Walmart and Sam’s Club will be required to incorporate a blockchain-based supply chain into its standard operating procedures. These companies include giants of the produce world like Dole, Taylor Farms, and Fresh Express.
Frank Yiannas, Walmart’s vice president for food safety, said:
“We’re requiring our suppliers of fresh leafy greens to be able to trace back their product to the source, to the farms, in seconds and not days or weeks.”
It makes perfect sense for Walmart to make this move. Just last spring, Arizona-based produce manufacturers were hit hard when romaine lettuce that originated there was found to be tainted with E. coli. The contaminated lettuce impacted 205 people in 36 different states. Ultimately, it ended up claiming the lives of five people. Consumers felt almost powerless in the situation, as they realized just how hard it was to find out where their produce originated.
After a lengthy investigation, only one farm could be traced back to the spread of the illness, though experts know from experience that it is rarely just one farm implicated in contaminations of this magnitude. But without the proper apparatuses in place, it is extremely difficult to get to the bottom of these types of produce scares. It is for this reason that the tainted romaine lettuce went on to harm consumers for several months, lasting from April to July. In fact, it was the deadly produce outbreak that had struck the industry in modern times.
“The time is now for a better way to tackle the issue of food traceability. There’s a strong public health case as well as a business case for doing so.”
In the digital age, where blockchain has made it possible to share information with the public within seconds, there is no reason for contamination on this scale to continue.
The Blockchain and Consumer Safety
For almost two years now, Walmart has been experimenting with blockchain technology to see how it could help prevent future outbreaks of foodborne illness. Big name companies like Nestle, Danone, Unilever and Driscoll’s berries have participated in these pilot programs, and almost all have a vested interest in doing so.
By incorporating blockchain, these companies have almost nothing to lose and everything to gain. Not only does this help prevent being at the forefront of a future contamination crisis, but it also shows that these brands are dedicated to using technology to ensure food excellence—something all consumers can get behind.
As described by the Los Angeles Times, the incorporation of blockchain technology would work by:
“The first block of the chain would come from growers providing information by smartphones, or in some cases via preprinted boxes and labels. Next, packers and shippers would enter information on every lot of produce they process as it passes through their facilities to trucks and enters the Walmart distribution system.
Each move is known to other parties, who must verify the activity in a system in which no one knows everything, but everyone knows every move. (That has earned blockchain the dual nicknames of the Internet of Trust and the Internet of Distrust.)”
But the industry has more to gain from this than just food safety. Blockchain will help expedite contract payments and also help supply more information to potential buyers.
Foodborne illnesses end up costing $152 billion in health care costs each year, but by utilizing blockchain’s decentralized capabilities, grocery retailers and consumers will be able to know where their food is coming from so that they may be able to avoid any harmful produce. And when an instance of contamination is detected, it can be stopped before causing widespread damage.
The fact that this type of technology can be used to ensure our food safety is just further proof of blockchain’s revolutionary implications. Even though government regulatory agencies have existed to “protect” consumers from these types of instances, the government is not by any means, a foolproof way of protecting consumers. Foodborne illnesses still spread each year in spite of the existence of these regulatory agencies. But by decentralizing information and making consumers more informed about their purchases, the market is becoming a safer place to do business.