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Top of the food chain – how blockchain might affect what you eat

Fri 28 Feb 2020 | Vincent Doumeizel

Vincent Doumeizel of Lloyd’s Register Foundation talks Food Industry 4.0 and describes the potential impact that blockchain could have on the sector

Where do your meals come from? Over the past few decades, the world’s food industry has gone through a radical evolution, becoming highly industrialised and globally connected. It’s not unusual for a European’s dinner plate to include Ecuadorian asparagus, Thai prawns and Kenyan rice. In many ways, this is an impressive feat. However, as Vincent Doumeizel, Director of the Food Programme at Lloyd’s Register Foundation points out, today’s “savvy consumers want to know exactly where their food comes from”.

Whether it is foodstuffs infected with dangerous microbes, meals which don’t contain the ingredients they purport to, or the desire to know that organic or fair trade food are what they say they are, consumers are increasingly seeking to know where their food originates. Doumeizel, who has 15 years industry experience and will be talking at Blockchain Tech World this March, reckons a new generation of tech will do a lot to help.

From farm to table with Food Industry 4.0

At Lloyd’s Register, Doumeizel helps identify and fund innovative projects which aim to drive safety and sustainability throughout the global supply chain. One area he focuses on is the Industrial IoT. “A US brewer, for example, has integrated smart manufacturing onto its factory floor in order to predict when its equipment will need maintenance.” This kind of investment in IoT sensors “has reduced downtime by 50 percent and increased production without raising costs.”

Other areas of interest include tracking customer purchases more precisely to reduce waste or to detect faulty machinery. “Industry 4.0 should eventually help manufacturers meet the demands of the coming decades and become predictive instead of reactive, enabling a preventative, risk-based approach to food safety and food fraud.”

And one of the most exciting technologies entering the food industry is blockchain. Doumeizel explains that “we have recently witnessed a steady increase in the number of announcements on the use of blockchain to enhance food traceability and its ability to track a product’s journey.” He notes that major food retailers, manufacturers, traders and even NGOs have all released reports on the potential of blockchain when it comes to making food safer, more traceable and fairer.

Join Vincent at Blockchain Technology World, 11-12 March, ExCeL London

Food Industry 4.0 & blockchain : Appetite for disruption
11 Mar 2020, 11:15 – 11:40
Theatre 6

The potential is enormous. He believes it could “change the way people buy and sell food, interact with governments and verify the authenticity of everything from property titles to organic vegetables to providing a fixed and trusted record of food distribution.” Ultimately, blockchain “meets a key demand from increasingly informed customers who know what they want to eat and who want to be sure about food authenticity.” So how would it work?

A recipe for blockchain in the food industry

Tracking and tracing food throughout the supply chain is extremely important. The 2013 horse meat scandal (where horse meat was found in ready-meals which claimed to contain beef) is a case in point – information about the sources of ingredients became very murky, meaning it was difficult to find where the dodgy ingredients came from.

Blockchain could be a gamechanger in this kind of scenario. As “a new way of recording transactions”, Doumeizel believes the tech “is clearly part of the solution for improving food traceability and, therefore, food safety.”

A blockchain for food tracking and tracing has many advantages. It offers smart contracts, a distributed ledger with no centralised administrator and security. As a result, it would be much harder to commit fraud, and it would be easier for all members of the network to work out who was responsible for any errors or rule breaking.

This could be useful in a variety of circumstances. Say there’s an outbreak of salmonella related to a batch of meat coming from one slaughterhouse. At the moment, “it can take days to identify the product, shipment and vendor,” and this means product recalls are very difficult – all of which would increase the number of consumers becoming seriously ill. Blockchain should be able to do this much quicker.

Doumeizel describes a proof of concept at Walmart, the US retailer. The firm recently “reported a comparative case study using a blockchain to trace back a package of mangos to the source in 2.2 seconds instead of the usual seven days.” It is early days yet, but the potential is enormous: “If successful, these trials could change how all other food retailers and manufacturers monitor food and take more efficient action when something goes wrong”. This, Doumeizel argues, should “spur big leaps in food safety, cutting costs and saving lives.”

Blockchain’s limits

Although blockchain could provide some compelling solutions to the industry, Doumeizel cautions against hype and exaggeration and does not see it as a ‘silver bullet’. “Unlike document-based financial or assurance transactions, food has physical attributes making it perishable and subject to substitution, dilution and other forms of fraud. The link between physical asset and digital records is complicated, requiring reliable forensics to assure authenticity and limit fraud.” As with the horse meat scandal described above, if the first entry onto the ledger is false (i.e. “this meat is beef” rather than “this meat is horse”), the system falls down.

All the same, he believes “blockchain is an enabling innovation, which, together with other technologies, will change the current model of agro-food supply chain risk management.” By combining with other technologies, a blockchain could make it much tougher to conduct fraud. For example, there is the potential of “genome sequencing for blockchain to capture DNA or environmental microbiome fingerprints of a given product” which would link the ledger to an inherent quality of the food. “This will make traceback and product specific verification easier.”

Food for thought

With growing interest – and indeed concern – about where our food comes from, industry 4.0 technologies are expected to help improve trust, transparency and traceability. All of which will help “sustainably and safely support the food system of tomorrow.” Bon appétit.

Experts featured:

Vincent Doumeizel

Director Food Programme
Lloyd's Register Foundation

Tags:

food supply chain
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