US retail giant Walmart, Chinese e-commerce company JD.com, technology vendor IBM and China’s Tsinghua University have teamed up to launch the Blockchain Food Safety Alliance.
The four organizations will initially work together on a project that aims to improve food tracking, traceability and safety in China and to achieve greater transparency across the food supply chain.
Together, they will create a standards-based method of collecting data about the origin, safety and authenticity of food, using blockchain technology to provide real-time traceability throughout the supply chain.
According to IBM, this will encourage accountability and give suppliers, regulators and consumers greater insight and transparency into how food is handled, on its journey from farms to consumers. In that past, this kind of information has been harder to retrieve and share, as a result of complex and fragmented data-sharing systems. Some of these are paper-based and, even where they’ve been digitized, the data is not always of a high standard.
The organizations involved have collaborated before; IBM and Walmart announced a new consortium to enhance food safety back in August, while IBM, Walmart and Tsinghua University have piloted the use of blockchain to trace food items, including pork in China and mangoes in the US.
Walmart has suggested that blockchain reduced the time it took to trace a package of mangoes from the farm to the store from days or weeks to two seconds.
The use of blockchain in this new collaboration will have two key benefits, according to the partners: ensuring brand owners’ data privacy, and enabling better integration of online and offline traceability for food safety and quality management.
Other companies can join he alliance and also share information using blockchain technology. IBM said plans include enabling companies to choose the standards-based traceability product that best suits their needs and legacy systems.
“This will in turn bring greater transparency to the supply chain and introduce new technologies to the retail sector designed to create a safer food environment and enhance the consumer experience,” IBM said.
“The insights gained from the work in China will shed light on how blockchain technology can help improve processes such as recalls and verifications and enhance consumer confidence due to greater transparency in China and around the world,” the company added.
Technology limitations must be tackled
Rob Bamforth, analyst at IT advisory company Quocirca suggested that the supply chain was a good application of blockchain.
“The blockchain or distributed ledger approach is ideal for the sort of multi-party transactions that are increasingly prevalent in highly-connected systems,” he said.
Bamforth added that the limitations of the technology are that it is very dependent on the network – so if it is intermittent or not fully robust, problems could arise.
“There is also the 51 percent problem – the technology works on consensus, so if the ‘wrong’ consensus is infiltrated and then dominates, it becomes ‘right’,” he warned.