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Consumer trust is one of the biggest hurdles that the food industry is up against today. A recent Food and Health Survey uncovered a serious trust deficit between consumers and food manufacturers and suppliers, and we don’t have to look far to see why.
In October 2018, J&J Snack Foods recalled its Fit & Active sandwiches from Aldi stores due to potential contamination with listeria monocytogenes and salmonella. Less than a month later, grocery stores nationwide swiftly pulled romaine lettuce from their shelves after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked widespread E. coli infections to romaine consumption. That wasn’t romaine’s first run-in with E. coli that year, either. Between March and June, the U.S. experienced its biggest E. coli outbreak in more than a decade, thanks to contaminated romaine.
Foodborne illness poses a serious health threat, yet most contaminations aren’t discovered and tracked down until long after tainted products make their way onto consumers’ tables. Case in point: In the two months it took the CDC to trace the source of the March-June E. coli outbreak, 210 people across 36 states were infected and five people died.
It’s no wonder consumers are skeptical of food companies. Regaining their trust in the wake of massive outbreaks such as these won’t be easy, but companies can create visibility for consumers by embedding blockchain technology into the current supply chain.
Many of us understand blockchain in the context of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, but the use cases for this technology span much further than digital coins. Blockchain is a distributed ledger: Every time a member executes a transaction, it creates a digitized record of that transaction that cannot be manipulated.
There’s one single source of truth in blockchain technology, and that is crucial for the food industry.
Through the blockchain, consumers can trace what farm harvested their avocados and shippers can see whether a carrier is at capacity before scheduling deliveries. When it comes to preventing, monitoring, and resolving food contamination, companies can consult the digital ledger to instantly trace the source and determine which merchants were affected.
Walmart is one institution that’s betting on blockchain to protect its customers and build trust. Walmart built a food-safety blockchain solution to instantly track the origins of various products from pork to mangoes. Walmart has mandated that by September 2019, all suppliers of leafy greens are required to have their data uploaded to the blockchain.
To integrate blockchain technology to boost consumer trust and drive innovation on a companywide level, food industry C-suite leaders should utilize these tips:
The Internet of Things and artificial intelligence have reached buzzword status in the past few years, but they’re crucial components in expanding blockchain technology in the food industry. IoT devices can automate accurate data collection, blockchain technology can secure the wealth of data in an immutable ledger, and AI tools can comb that data for insights that companies can then publicize to deliver on consumer transparency expectations.
To illustrate, let’s say Company A uses an IoT device to detect which pesticides were used to grow its leafy greens. The device would then store that data directly in the blockchain database. Company A could then leverage AI to organize the data into bite-size insights for health-conscious consumers. When consumers know that this information is verified on the blockchain, it paints the company in a more honest light.
When humans completely own and operate the supply chain, it’s easy to miss or ignore red flags that ultimately jeopardize consumers’ health. Using IoT sensors and AI together, companies can predict problems with maintenance, refrigeration, and other machine-driven manufacturing processes. Automated systems can detect anomalies such as equipment failure and can make decisions immediately.
Companies can also use these technologies to identify and resolve potential problems — before they occur. For instance, Company A could set up a smart contract within its blockchain network to automatically deploy an alert if pesticide use exceeds limits and renders the product unsafe for consumption.
While humans may miss important alerts or decide to deliver spoiled products in favor of profit, blockchain-based automation — combined with AI and IoT — can offer a higher level of safety for consumers.
With greater transparency comes greater responsibility. Implementing blockchain across the supply chain will make it easier for consumers to check the quality of products before they make purchases, which holds food companies more accountable. So when implementing blockchain, company leaders must also prioritize cultivating a culture of food safety among their employees.
Chipotle learned this lesson the hard way after coming under fire for multiple food-safety incidents a few years ago. Consumers in the U.S. and Canada reported cases of foodborne illness after consuming Chipotle, ultimately resulting in class-action lawsuits and profit loss. Finally, company leaders took matters into their own hands by enacting plans to retrain employees on food-safety best practices.
Blockchain holds the promise of transforming the food industry — but first, companies need to embrace this innovative technology. By using key technologies in conjunction with blockchain, automating checks and balances, and instilling a strong culture of accountability among employees, leaders can enable the transparency needed to rebuild consumer trust in the food industry.
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