We live in an unprecedented age of food production. A combination of scientific advances, improved farming techniques, and a more connected populace is enabling a global market for food production to provide for an ever-growing population.
Appropriately, delicious dishes are captured on Instagram and shared around the world. Dozens of food-related shows populate the daytime TV circuit, which helped spawn a vibrant culture of so-called “foodies,” that celebrate the diverse foods available and the cultures that create them.
Unfortunately, there is an increasingly dark side of the industry. Foodborne illness, a side-effect of the extensive food supply chain, is on the rise, and it’s a problem that the industry has struggled to address for too long. As Beth Kowitt wrote in Fortune, “We are in a battle with bacteria. And from the numbers, it might appear that we are losing.”
Food production is a complicated process that involves an intricate series of steps involving farmers, shipping agents, grocery stores, and, eventually, kitchen tables. Unfortunately, as food travels through this process, it’s picking up dangerous microbes that are causing illness at an alarming rate.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million Americans are sickened by a foodborne illness each year. 128,000 will be hospitalized for their illness and 3,000 will die.
These episodes are described in ominous terms like “food poisoning,” and each one feels like a personal betrayal. The food that was intended to nourish our bodies is instead killing them.
Not only is having foodborne illness an unpleasant experience, but it’s also bad for business and for the planet. According to data compiled by the United States Department of Agriculture, there were 131 food-related recalls in 2017. These recalls caused nearly 21 million pounds of food to be discarded for safety reasons.
Regrettably, this is a growing trend. For a decade, the number of food recalls did not exceed 100, and most years accrued less than half that number. Strikingly, each of the last three years has far exceeded 100 recalls.
This is a costly increase. In 2015, Robert Scharff conducted a study on the cost of food recalls, and he found that product recalls cost the food industry $55.5 billion that year. Those costs are not making the product better for anyone.
Fighting foodborne illness requires precise tracking of the supply chain. Only a small percentage of contaminants are traced back to a product’s farm of origin. Instead, food products are picking up contagions at other points in their journey, and identifying the source of these diseases can be impossible using current technology.
Fortunately, the blockchain has several capabilities that make it seem uniquely tailored to this problem. Initially developed as the accounting mechanism for Bitcoin, the blockchain has grown in popularity and capacity in conjunction with the rise of digital currency. In fact, even as cryptocurrencies continue to soar in value, many are recognizing that the blockchain’s transformative technology can actually make it more valuable than the currencies that it once managed.
Supply chain management is one of its most lauded features. Research and consulting firm, Deloitte, touts the blockchain’s ability to “help participants record price, data, location, quality, certification, and other relevant information to more effectively manage the supply chain.” Moreover, The Harvard Business Review notes that, when applied to supply chain management, the blockchain “gives each member of the network far greater and timelier visibility of the total activity.”
For the food industry, the blockchain makes the supply chain transparent and verifiable. In the same way that blockchain technology correctly accounts for millions of digital currency transactions each day, it can log every step of the food production process. Therefore, in the case of an outbreak, officials can more specifically identify the source of the epidemic and can work to contain it. Additionally, companies can pinpoint the exact products associated with the outbreak so that a recall isn’t unnecessarily broad or inaccurately minimized.
Fortunately, developments in tracking and scanning technology make this process simple and cost-effective. Farmers, shipping companies, distributors, and supermarkets can all scan and track the specific items from farm to table, and those records are securely and transparently stored on the blockchain.
What’s more, government officials, industry leaders, and consumers all have a stake in this information, and the blockchain produces a verifiable and auditable record of a food product’s entire journey. With the blockchain, there are no more secrets.
Blockchain technology and platforms that facilitate its implementation are readily available. By looking to the blockchain as a tool for tracking the food production cycle, companies can better manage their food supply chain to avoid contamination. This initiative has the potential to provide a better product that serves more people. Most importantly, it can save lives and improve people’s health. Rather than producing headlines for another food-related catastrophe, it’s time for companies to start making headlines for the ways that they are preventing it. Exploring blockchain technology is an excellent place to start.
Quency L. Phillips
Chief Marketing Officer, eHarvestHub