Is Blockchain the Traceability Solution?

Departments - Consumer Perspectives

August 7, 2018

DARIN DETWILER, Dean of Graduate Academic and Faculty Affairs, Northeastern University

The recent three-month outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 tied to romaine lettuce from Yuma, Ariz., (contaminated by tainted canal water) resulted in 210 illnesses across 36 states confirmed by the CDC, including 96 hospitalizations, 27 victims developing Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (kidney failure), and five deaths. For those in the food safety sector, the frustration over this includes the fact that this took place 12 years after the notable 2006 E. coli  O157:H7 outbreak tied to spinach. That outbreak resulted in 199 illnesses across 26 states confirmed by the CDC, with 102 hospitalizations, 31 victims developing Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, and three deaths. Further, it resulted in a significant economic impact to the entire leafy greens industry.

Clearly, we need to be doing something different. Managing and communicating chain of custody, provenance, traceability, and transparency are all currently in high demand by consumers — to meet their requests for information about products.

Blockchain, which is new in terms of regulatory technology, could be “that something different” as it offers a decentralized eLedger; a collection of blocks of information from each step, farm to fork. It lives in multiple locations at once, making it extremely difficult to edit, change, or forge. Being immutable, blockchain creates a permanent record, which can be referenced quickly and with greater confidence than traditional records in the event of an emergency. Some talk of it as the “death of the document as we know it today” — as a data recording document shared between parties.

Though blockchain will not solve all our quality assurance and food safety concerns overnight, many leaders in food policy view this as being a part of the modern, digital toolkit within the next two to five years. They also anticipate that the industry will use blockchain to meet the demands that consumers are placing on retailers in terms of trust: label information, origins, temperature control, and more.

However, we must balance the talks of strengths and opportunities with that of weaknesses and threats. Strengths include its format as a digital record database, put together with information pertinent to multiple stakeholders. There must be consensus of all stakeholders for the blocks of data in the chain tied to a product. The ease of access to the multitude of documents (thousands of transactions within the supply chain for a product on the retail shelf) now made digital is seen as one of blockchain’s greatest strengths.

Smart contracts are also a strength of blockchain. Attaching terms and conditions to transactions that are automated, so a computer (artificial intelligence) can execute the terms (such as transportation temperature sampling data specifications), thus preventing a shipment from being finalized and sent out by a supplier if it did not meet buyer requirements. Blockchain also offers democratization of information with real-time visibility of the chain to all parties in a transaction at the same time. This is what can enable quick recalls.

Weaknesses include the fact that the inclusion of multiple parties opens the door to potential issues in how it is configured, who authors the blocks of information, and who controls (public vs. private) the blocks of data. As the size of the eLedger gets larger over time, it gets harder to manage and secure. This assumes 100% buy-in and participation. True recall traceback requires complete — and authentic — participation and accurate data from all participants. Further, all participants must be using platforms that can communicate with each other. As competitors might tend to use conflicting technology providers, then the ultimate goals of blockchain become weakened by a different set of principles, or commercial-driven decisions, as opposed to strengthened by cooperation.

Another weakness is the shift in supplier and customer culture, as we will see a much different, non-linear supply chain than currently. This will force changes in industry job roles as trust providers. Similarly, a weakness can be found in current certifications as this culture continues to shift. How do mangers or directors verify and validate information governance?

Also, blockchain is all about data. Data is great, but more important than data is information. For data to become actionable information, people (not just artificial intelligence) need to ask the right questions. To overcome this potential weakness, those who use blockchain for food safety and authenticity must have an understanding of the true burden of disease, not just the various aspects of the commodity. We also must develop a stronger understanding of this culture shift with the relationship between the supplier and the consumer. A third party or digital tool alone cannot achieve the goals associated with brand trust and public health.

Strengths and weaknesses aside, much progress can be found in building the understanding of blockchain’s use and potential. While there are already significant tests with food industry coalitions underway that are producing some great results, many experts continue to focus on the changes needed in the workforce to support blockchain. In addition to a focus on ethics, data management, and data security, organizations and universities are now developing training programs and certifications for blockchain leadership. Beyond data entry, many industry skill sets related to regulatory compliance can be blended with analytics and even project management.