Blockchain As A Food Safety Tool: Limitations And Opportunities

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

Peter Bracher, Managing Director of, NSF Asia-Pacific (part of NSF International) shares anecdotes from his travels through Asia and his interaction with blockchain technology.

Food safety professionals attending industry conferences this year will have seen many interesting presentations on how blockchain is the answer to our prayers. A secure traceability system based on uncrackable cryptocurrency technology will enable us to track products from farms to consumers, identify all the links along the chain and see who has made any additions. Some of the current work is visionary, with proposals for major retail and supplier groups collaborating on a common system. One of the most promising developments is the partnership between IBM and Walmart that was announced in 2017. At the time, Frank Yiannas, Vice President, Food Safety and Health at Walmart, said: “Through collaboration, standardisation and adoption of new and innovative technologies, we can effectively improve traceability and transparency and help ensure the global food system remains safe for all.”

On my travels throughout Asia, I’ve also seen some promising local initiatives that point the way to wider, open systems that could help to improve traceability and safety. One notable project is the Bashaier Agricultural Network in Egypt that links hundreds of small farmers via a mobile phone app. The system can be used to improve traceability, as well as to spread good agricultural practices, and an added bonus is it allows small farmers to sell their produce online. Another initiative in Vietnam uses the TE-FOOD mobile phone app to provide a traceability system for eggs. What I like about this system is it is accessible to the public, so customers can use their mobile phones to scan a barcode on the packaging and see the supply chain all the way back to a local farm.

I first came across blockchain in 2010 when one of my more IT-savvy friends told me he was mining for Bitcoins. With great pride he showed me what looked like the innards of a dozen desktop computers mounted in a rack in his kitchen, whirring away and pushing out more heat than a pizza oven. I was intrigued when he told me how much money he’d already made by mining for Bitcoins, but rapidly lost interest when he showed me his electricity bill.

As the manager for the Asia-Pacific operations of NSF International, I work primarily in developing markets, so I asked our local supply chain experts to look into how we can utilise blockchain plus other technology to support our local customers, and that’s when things got interesting. Many of our customers in Asia source from very small suppliers, typically less than 10 percent of their suppliers will have food safety certification covered by the internationally recognized Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), and often their buying practices use a combination of brokers, small suppliers and wet markets.

A distributed database designed specifically for digital asset tracking—which is essentially what blockchain is—can only go so far up such a fragmented chain. In addition, trying to secure traceability back to the farm is a serious challenge in markets such as India, which has over 500 million farms [K. Basu, The Oxford Companion to Economics in India, Oxford University Press]. There’s also the challenge of products that are subdivided, such as tuna, and also products that cannot be easily labelled such as fresh shrimp, milk or raw vegetables.

So, while our teams in Asia realised that blockchain technology could provide major benefits in the form of a secure traceability system, they found limitations when it came to its application in developing markets and when used with fresh food products. However, our auditors in Asia are used to overcoming challenges on a daily basis. They proposed an integrated solution combining the benefits of blockchain with traditional auditing. To provide better governance, we verified accuracy by cross-referencing big data with small data collected in our solution.

Their approach makes use of NSF International’s position as the leader in certification and non-certification food safety audits, as well as our public health-based mission. The technology experts and auditors in my company proposed that we employ a blockchain traceability system as far up the supply chain as practical. For products that cannot be uniquely identified, we use data to verify the volumes of products being supplied between the different supply chain stakeholders. Our global scale provides the big data to develop a map of potential maximum volumes of raw materials from the primary producers. Our independent status helps when asking suppliers to share commercially sensitive data, as we can guarantee keeping all data private on our secure servers.

We are developing a free, downloadable mobile phone app that will enable the smallest producers to submit key data. Our integrated system shifts the emphasis of audits from being the primary tool of food safety assurance to becoming a tool to investigate any mismatches in the data. NSF’s EyeSucceed smart glasses technology enables us to pass relevant data on to our auditors in the field during their audits. We’ve found that it’s inevitable that there will be some gaps in data due to the often complex supply chains in Asia. At this stage, the reconciliation of the gap requires technical industry experts. Developments in augmented intelligence and machine learning will help us automate much of the data matching in the future.

Our early trials also showed some additional benefits. For example, payroll data can highlight potential labour issues that could be reviewed during the scheduled investigative audit. We are also including productivity data for the relevant industry sectors to provide an additional alert if the volumes cannot be supported by the data on the producers. A side benefit is that the traditional annual audit can be replaced by a flexible audit schedule based on an assessment of probable risks, which can help to focus resources on the right areas whilst also making the process more efficient.

We see blockchain as an exciting new tool in the drive to improve food safety assurance for consumers. We also see it as part of an integrated system to advance risk management throughout the whole of the supply chain, while progressing the value of the traditional audit-based systems. Such an integrated system is not beyond reach. Technology advancements have made it possible for us to pilot these capabilities for our clients.


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