Featured: Blockchain for Food May be the Solution for Food Safety

One proposed use for blockchain technology is the tracking of food for food safety. You would think that in 2019, it’s already relatively easy to track our food from the plate, back to the farmer; however, you’d be wrong. Nothing highlights this more than the 2018 Romaine Lettuce E.coli outbreak.

In November 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US issued a statement, warning the public not to eat romaine lettuce. This blanket warning came after several people fell sick due to E.coli after eating romaine lettuce. This was a severe warning, the food safety agencies advised that no one in the US should eat romaine lettuce, regardless of whether anyone had got sick in their area. This also applied to restaurants: restaurants had to throw away all of their romaine lettuce, and thoroughly clean the areas where the lettuce was stored.

There are many different strains of E.coli, and for a healthy individual with a functioning immune system, E.coli poisoning with a toxic strain would be uncomfortable, but not life-threatening. Typical symptoms of an E.coli outbreak include diarrhea, urinary tract infections, and pneumonia; however, some people won’t experience symptoms at all, and others will be dangerously ill. The young and the elderly are the most at risk of having severe health complications. Below you can see the scale of the problem.

March to June 2018 E.coli Outbreak:

  • 210 reported illnesses from 36 states
  • 96 hospitalizations
  • 27 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) (this syndrome affects the platelets in the blood which are used for clotting, as well as damaging kidney function.) Around 5-10% of those infected with a toxic strain of E.coli will develop HUS. Symptoms include fever, lethargy, abdominal pain, infrequent urination, and unusual bruises or bleeding. HUS is potentially life-threatening.
  • 5 deaths

Final Outbreak that ended January 9, 2019 (Majority of cases between October 7 and December 4, 2018)

  • 62 reported cases across 16 states
  • 25 hospitalizations
  • 0 deaths

On November 26, 2018, the FDA had released some initial findings of the traceback investigation for the most recent outbreak, although it wasn’t as precise as people were hoping for. The FDA managed to narrow the lettuce growers down to the Central Coast growing regions of central and northern California, which is, of course, a large area. Because they couldn’t gather enough information at this stage, they couldn’t ask for a recall of lettuce that only applied to specific suppliers. By December 13, 2018, the FDA had managed to narrow down the source of the E.coli to the following California counties: Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Barbara. By December 17, this was narrowed down to a water supply for a farming operation in Santa Barbara, ran by Adam Bros Farming Inc.

The FDA criticized the lettuce growers for not labeling the product since it makes it easier to trace, although they were not operating outside guidelines by doing this. In the final outbreak, the growers did agree to label their produce in order to make contamination easier to trace. Even labeling the lettuce isn’t a foolproof way of ensuring the origin; it turns out that different lettuces grown across different farms often get mixed together before being delivered to restaurants or supermarkets. This then means that investigations have to look for common links among the suppliers.

But wouldn’t it be easier if this was all on an immutable database?

This incident caused ill health, distress, and widespread panic, and happened more than once in 2018. Not only is it a major risk to public health and livelihood, but it also has an significant economic effect. If it was possible to trace the lettuce involved in the outbreak quickly back to the farm, then that particular brand of lettuce can be recalled. This would effect that specific farming operation, but not every other lettuce grower in the country, or the restaurants and businesses which sell lettuce in. Because it isn’t a straightforward process and is instead shrouded in mystery, taking investigations weeks to get to the bottom of it, all lettuce in the US had to be thrown out.

Walmart has been working with IBM since 2017 on a blockchain food safety solution. The idea is that each node on the blockchain would represent an entity that has interacted with the food on its way to the store.

Bridget Van Kralingen, IBM Senior VP for Global Industries, Platforms and Blockchain said:

“We built the IBM Food Trust solution using IBM Blockchain Platform, which is a tool or capability that IBM has built to help companies build, govern and run blockchain networks. It’s built using Hyperledger Fabric [the open source digital ledger technology] and it runs on IBM Cloud.”

To put into perspective how useful this would be when it comes to contaminated food, consider this: it typically takes 7 days to trace the source of the food back to the producers, with blockchain, it has been reduced to 2.2 seconds.

It is expected that IBM, and any other company that will roll out a blockchain solution for food, will have to provide training for the different companies involved in uploading the data to the blockchain. This is expected to be somewhat of a logistical nightmare since different companies will already be using vastly different systems and will potentially have to learn a new one. However, standardization has its own benefits, it will ensure that everyone is the same important information and reduce inconsistencies in reporting.

Walmart VP for food safety Frank Yiannas said:

“Our customers deserve a more transparent supply chain. We felt the one-step-up and one-step-back model of food traceability was outdated for the 21st century. This is a smart, technology-supported move that will greatly benefit our customers and transform the food system, benefitting all stakeholders.”

A food safety blockchain solution is also a way for farmers to communicate their products to their customer base. The masses are becoming increasingly interested in where their food came from, what conditions it was grown in, and when it comes to meat, how the animals were treated. Farmers can often apply labels to food that are misleading. This is something consumers in the UK are becoming increasingly concerned about.

In the UK, a “locally grown” label can be added to food and this would, of course, lead consumers to believe the food was produced locally. However, there are some sneaky tactics at play here. As long as the last processing of the food occurred locally, then they can apply the label; yet, the food may have been grown hundreds of miles away.

Then, of course, there are ethical concerns. What does free range eggs actually mean? Do the chickens spend months roaming pastures? Or are they let out of one hour a day and that counts as a free range chicken? Some free-range sheds in the UK can contain 16,000 hens. These hens are allowed to leave the shed; however, they are so hemmed in that most will struggle to find an exit, is that free range?

Ethical issues around food are complex, and often highly personal. What is acceptable to one person, will not be to the next, and this is why a blockchain solution that plainly illustrates where your food came from, and the conditions it faced will be an invaluable resource for many. It may also help shape the agricultural industry into something more people are comfortable with.