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Blockchain and Recalls: How the Technology Could Prevent People From Eating Contaminated Food

Most people have heard of blockchain technology as it relates to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. In fact, blockchain was initially developed specifically to record and track bitcoin transactions. As the technology becomes more widely adopted, however, developers and businesses are finding more and more applications for the secure tracking it enables. Blockchain technology is ultimately a very effective and secure way to manage and verify data, which makes it a great asset to retailers like grocery chains, who can benefit greatly from the ability to trace exactly where their fresh produce and other items come from. Blockchain may in fact be the key to tracing the source of outbreaks of foodborne illnesses and keeping contaminated fruits and vegetables out of consumer’s homes.

Essentially, a blockchain is an ever-expanding list of records (blocks) that are securely linked together. All of these records are distributed across a network of personal computers, which makes the information very difficult to corrupt or delete, because no single person, business or computer holds all the information. All of this means blockchain software is a great platform for connecting the various links in a supply chain and tracking and verifying data, which is of course a key part of managing an event such as a food recall. Currently, when a foodborne contamination is suspected, retailers often must remove all of the specific food type from shelves (as was the case in the recent recall of romaine lettuce) which leads to a lot of unnecessary waste. The ability to quickly identify the exact farm that produced a contaminated head of lettuce, for example, could make a recall much shorter and more precise. A blockchain database has the added security benefit of only allowing approved individuals to access its information.

In fact, major retail brands are already leveraging blockchain in their supply chain. Walmart, for example, set a deadline of January 31st of this year for their direct suppliers of spinach and lettuce to begin submitting data to a blockchain database developed by IBM. The idea is that the retail giant will be able to track the source and other relevant details of any piece of produce in a matter of seconds. Using blockchain, Walmart and other retailers will be able to quickly put a stop to the flow of contaminated products into their stores and reduce waste by only removing affected product from shelves. The IBM platform, known as IBM Food Trust, is also being adopted by major brands such as Kroger, Nestle, Tyson and Dole.  

Despite this quick adoption, as with any emerging technology, blockchain solutions raise concerns as new applications are discovered. There’s still much to be learned about this relatively new technology and its uses will continue to evolve. For now, blockchain promises to provide retailers with an unparalleled amount of secure data—and as anybody who has ever confronted a recall knows, solid data is an absolute necessity when protecting consumers from potentially harmful contaminants.

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