Walmart and IBM Food Trust : Supply chain meets Blockchain

• How can the world’s produce growers, buyers, retailers and consumers trust their food quality? Supply chain, meet IBM Blockchain.

It starts with a single report of severe food-borne illness. Then more reports pour in from around the country and from them, a culprit in the outbreak emerges: a common type of lettuce. But how can any consumer tell if the lettuce in the fridge at home is safe to eat? And how can a store know if it has tainted lettuce on its shelves?

Until recently, answering those questions hasn’t been easy or fast. And the risks they represent are significant. The World Health Organization has estimated that there are 600 million cases of foodborne illness each year, leading to 420,000 deaths. It can take a week to trace a head of lettuce back to the farm where it was grown. “What you do is take a lot of paperwork and lay it out in a conference room,” says Tejas Bhatt, senior director, Food Safety, for Walmart. “Then you try to map out how the product moved across the supply chain based on the paper trail.”

Instead, the work of Walmart and IBM, powered by IBM Blockchain and part of the IBM Food Trust, shows there’s now a much better—and faster—way.

Every step in the supply chain, packed with traceability

Tracing the progression of food through a supply chain can be daunting. Looking at an example of recall data from a farm that grows an assortment of vegetables, four days of production of red- and green-leaf lettuce and cauliflower can generate more than 200 separate tracking numbers that are printed onto cartons and pallets for shipping to buyers. Many of these growers’ containers get opened and discarded along the way as food processing companies chop the lettuce, use it in sandwiches or salad mixes and then ship them on to retailers with their own entirely new tracking numbers.

It doesn’t end there. At retail, produce is typically unpacked and put on shelves and in refrigerated cases, where it’s separated from packing materials with the original printed tracking information. Finding individual boxes of particular at-risk produce in this environment means searching a haystack of paper records and chasing down a list of tracking numbers that might never connect all the way from grower to retailer.

IBM Food Trust, using blockchain technology running on the IBM Cloud, can connect growers, processors, distributors and retailers through a permissioned, permanent and shared record of food-system data that can drastically cut the time needed to trace produce from farm to store. In a pilot program, tracing time was reduced from almost seven days to just 2.2 seconds.

“With blockchain, all the trace media’s already there,” explains Tejas. “You more efficiently trace a product back to its source.” For Tejas, getting food tracing and safety out of the conference room and into the digital era would make him more effective. Blockchain technology is also changing the way companies like Walmart collaborate with their supply chains—even with potential competitors.

“Honestly, when it comes to protecting the customer,” says Tejas, “it shouldn’t matter where they bought the head of lettuce. We all take food safety as a precompetitive issue.” So IBM’s Food Trust ecosystem connects supply chains like Walmart’s and also those of other major retailers and global companies such as Carrefour, Dole, Golden State Foods, Driscoll’s and Nestlé—all without sharing any information they have not chosen to share.

Such an ecosystem of transparency and accountability fostered by IBM’s blockchain network can transform stakeholders’ work in their supply chains as well as agency counterparts who hunt down the sources of food-borne illnesses. Consider the tracking needs of a company like Golden State Foods, which supplies the food service industry, servicing 120,000 restaurants in more than 40 countries. Or Walmart, which alone sells fresh produce across its network of 11,000 stores to 265 million customers across the globe every week.

“Customers trust us to help them put quality food on their tables for themselves and their families,” said Charles Redfield, executive vice president of Food at Walmart. “We have to go further than offering great food at an everyday low price. Our customers need to know they can trust us to help ensure that food is safe.”

Beyond safety, consumers increasingly value the kind of information that a system built on IBM Blockchain can provide: Where did this food come from? Who produced it? Where has it been? Is it truly what the label says it is? With blockchain, growers, distributors and retailers can provide consumers digitized certifications of existing organic or fair trade products along with detailed documentation from different points in the process, from farm to table.

Ed Treacy, vice president of Supply Chain and Sustainability at the Produce Marketing Association, believes blockchain holds potential to increase transparency and transform how the food industry works. “It can help by speeding up investigations into contaminated food, authenticating the origin of food and providing insights about the conditions and pathway through which the food traveled,” he says. “This will help identify opportunities to maximize shelf life and reduce losses due to spoilage.”

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