Does that food packet labeled as organic that you recently bought really organic or is it just a marketing gimmick to charge you extra for the normal food with just a label change? Our food supply chain is under constant threat from adulteration that is affecting many lives and there is no way to know the origin of the problem.
According to WHO, 1 out of every 10th person becomes ill every year after consuming contaminated food, which ends up taking approximately 420,000 lives every year. Let’s study the challenges that our food industry is facing today.
Further, we will also see how blockchain is going to disrupt this industry and bring about a paradigm shift in how it works. Now let us look at the challenges that our food industry faces.
The biggest challenge that this industry faces is the complexity of the global food supply chain and it is nearly impossible for retailers to tell the exact provenance of the product.
Food Contamination cases are on a rise despite strict quality checks and measures implemented by retailers. Once a contaminated food item reaches the shelf of a supermarket or a big retailer and is consumed, the consequences can be quite dire. This endangers the health and lives of the customers and proves to be a big menace for the retail company or the supermarket.
Such events not only result in big financial losses but also lead to an erosion of trust, loyalty, and reputation of the retailers.
Further, it is not easy to track the particular food item and its source to nip the evil in the bud.
It takes a lot of paperwork and toiling to find the exact item and reach back to its original source, till then everything is labeled as contaminated in the customer’s mind.
It may happen that the food producer sent a good quality food but the tampering was done by some other player or link involved in the supply chain.
In such cases, it becomes a daunting task to identify the node in the chain where this adulteration or contamination was introduced.
The loopholes in this complex food supply chain are exploited by fraudsters as they purposely adulterate, tamper, mislabel and substitute one product with another for their economic profits. Few food products are highly-priced because their labels indicate that they are organic.
But there is no way for a customer to validate if the product is really organic for which he is paying the extra bucks. Fraud can occur in the raw materials or in a specific ingredient or in the final product.
The ramifications of food fraud are many and can range Change from damage to the brand to financial losses to the retailers and the worst of them can even result in the poor health of the consumers. Certain products are famous or are known when attached with a specific origin. For instance, the label French Wine on a wine bottle indicates that the origin would be France, but actually, the origin of that wine is a different country say Spain and this is a real scenario which came to light recently where millions of Spanish wine bottles were sold as French wine. This is not limited to just this one case,if we look around us we will easily find many instances and anecdotes of food frauds. Some of the notable examples that will make you realize the gravity and seriousness of this situation can be:
In a 2013 food fraud case in the UK, horsemeat was mixed with beef and they were together labeled and sold as beef in the market.
In 2008, Chinese infant formulated food was contaminated with chemical plastic named Melamine which hospitalized thousands of infants. It has been claimed that around 70% of Kopi luwak coffee is not genuine.
Kopi luwak coffee is extremely expensive compared to regular coffee and is a a very high risk of fraudulent adulteration. Honey is consistently in the top 10 food frauds. As honey is one of the most expensive forms of sugar, it is commonly adulterated with other sugar syrups like corn syrup, cane sugar etc to increase its volume. Virgin olive oil that we consume might be adulterated with some other less expensive oils like sunflower or peanuts and in case it is adulterated with peanut oil it can cause serious health effects to people who have allergies to peanuts.
These loopholes in the food industry can be solved by Blockchain Technology.
This distributed ledger technology facilitates a shared digital view of the transaction data to all the permissioned members in the food supply network. Each transaction on the ledger is immutable and is recorded only after the consensus among the members. The innate characteristic of immutability and the transparency that this technology provides help build trust among the consumers.
Now let us look at how this technology actually works for better food safety for the consumers.
There are many stakeholders involved in the food supply chain management and each of them has to record the relevant information on the digital ledger that is immutable and can be seen by other permissioned members of the network. The supply chain starts with the farmers who grow our food. The information they are required to store on the blockchain is location, the altitude at which the plants are grown, irrigation treatment, growth conditions of the plants like temperature, humidity, soil, fertilizers used, other information like date of harvesting and dispatching to the next link in the chain.
They also need to provide the certificates if any, to prove that the food they have grown have specific characteristics like being organic or cruelty-free.
Next comes food processors who transform food products supplied by the food producers into products that meet consumers’ requirements.
This process is also known as food manufacturing. The food manufactured at this stage can be either in a ready-eat state for consumers or it can further act as raw material to create other food products by different food processors.
The records that they are required to keep on the digital ledger are: their location, received date of raw materials, sampling details, analysis of the food received, the processes and the materials used for manufacturing, data of manufacturing, and shelf life of the food, storage conditions of the processed food, packaging conditions of food, dispatch date to the next link in the chain, etc. Even the ideal temperature range and other conditions required need to be recorded on the digital ledgers. Distributors act as a link between food processing companies and wholesalers or retailers.
The distributor receives pallets and cartons of food from the processor. As the name suggests, he distributes the food received through various channels to the end customers. These channels can be wholesalers or retailers who in turn provide these food products to the final consumers. The information required to be stored at this stage is: receiving date of food, storage conditions, inventory details, and dispatch date to the subsequent links in the chain.
Retailers receive these products from distributors and sell these to the end consumers. The retailer needs to record the received items, inventory details, storage details, and sales information on the ledger. The consumer is the final link in the food supply chain who consumes this food therefore should have full rights to know the detailed information about the food. With blockchain technology, he will be able to see all the information that was recorded on the digital ledger throughout its journey. It is just a matter of a few seconds to trace the origin of the food, its authenticity, and the journey it has taken before entering his shopping cart.
Every food product has been provided a unique identification number or QR code.
When the QR code is scanned through a smartphone or the unique code is entered into the company’s website, the whole history of the food can be tracked right from its origin till it reaches the shelves of the store.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 48 million Americans become sick because of consumption of contaminated food.
Out of these 48 million, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 lose their lives to this illness. When a food-borne disease outbreak occurs, it is very crucial that the source of contamination is identified at the earliest possible. But with such a complex supply chain and fragmented data, the traceback is quite slow which leads to the loss of many precious lives. But with Blockchain the provenance of a product can be traced back within the course of a few seconds. The retailer can easily track the serial number associated with the contaminated food shipment back to the distributor and then to its original supplier.
Subsequently, that supplier will immediately be flagged on the blockchain, and everyone who has sourced that food item from that supplier would be made aware of the danger.
A more appropriate example of this situation is The Romaine lettuce incident that took place recently in 2018 where the lettuce contaminated with E.coli affected at least 200 people in 36 states of U.S. and even lead to death of 5 people. Contaminated canal water used for irrigation was the cause of lettuce getting infected with E.coli pathogens. strain. It took them months and a great deal of effort to trace the origin point of the problem.
If every information would have been on a digital ledger it would have been much easier to determine the origin of the problem from where the contaminated batch of lettuce was sourced. And once the origin is tracked, it is much easier to alert everyone and take all the lettuce off the shelves sourced from that particular location, supplier, or farm.
This will not only save precious lives but will also save retailers from the financial losses which they have to bear when they take off all the food items of that category until the source is identified. To give you a real-life industrial example of blockchain let us take the case of Walmart. Recently, it conducted a traceback test on a pack of mangoes in one of its stores.
It took them more than 6 days to trace back the origin of these mangoes. And when the same test was conducted using blockchain it took them a mere 2.2 seconds to find the original farm. So you can imagine how powerful and useful this technology is for the food industry.
It will help in food recalls and reduce the time consumers are at risk.