Imagine being able to trace a piece of fresh fruit from your store back to the farm on which it was produced in a mere 2.2 seconds. This isn’t a supermarket pipe dream – it’s the power potentially unleashed by a new technology called blockchain.
Two years ago, no one in the food industry was talking about blockchain, unless they were having a discussion about Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. But thanks to a 2016 proof-of-concept project with Armonk, N.Y.-based technology powerhouse IBM and the world’s largest retailer – Walmart Inc. – blockchain is bringing new worlds of possibility to the concepts of data sharing and transparency.
IBM’s initial work with Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart involved tracing shipments of pork in China, and fresh mango in the United States.
Building on the success of those tests, the technology continues to gain steam in the industry, as IBM is now collaborating with Walmart and two additional retailers – the Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. and Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets – as well as Temple, Texas-based supply chain services provider McLane Co. and a consortium of leading suppliers such as Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, McCormick and Co., Nestle, Tyson Foods, and Unilever. Its master plan is to accelerate and bring to scale its enterprise-ready, blockchain traceability solution, called IBM Food Trust.
If all goes as planned, IBM could be rolling out the solution in the second half of this year, according to Brigid McDermott, VP of IBM Food Trust. But the company is being careful to work with as many parties in the food industry as possible, since McDermott says that collaboration is necessary for the solution’s ultimate success.
“[Our] goal is to have all members of the food ecosystem participating, so that the transparency we create is across the entire ecosystem,” she tells Progressive Grocer. “This means all retailers, all manufacturers, all growers, etc. We will continue to add partners who are interested in improving trust and transparency in the food sector.”
As IBM works on its solution, many of the industry’s leading trade groups are separately ramping up efforts to educate their members and make sure that their sectors of the supermarket business are fairly represented in the blockchain discussion. Other technology companies are also working on traceability solutions based on blockchain, and at least one supplier, Wayzata, Minn.-based Cargill, has launched a test of its own.
If you haven’t yet heard of blockchain, it’s a type of technology that enables users to create shared ledgers of data. Because it follows a decentralized model, it’s more resilient to technical and organizational failure, and there are many shared owners. At the same time, it ensures a “single truth,” as data that’s entered on the ledger can’t be manipulated.
- Key Takeaways
- Blockchain enables users to create shared ledgers of data, and, because it follows a decentralized model, it’s more resilient to technical and organizational failure.
- The technology can empower solutions such as traceability, food safety and chain of custody.
- Retail pioneers in developing blockchain for the food industry include Walmart (working with IBM), Kroger and Wegmans.
- A PMA initiative will be key to how produce is traced with blockchain.