Blockchain technology is no longer just a “solution in search of a problem.”
After 18 months of testing, IBM’s blockchain-based food traceability platform is now live for global use by retailers, wholesalers and suppliers across the food ecosystem.
The launch marks one of the first times that an enterprise blockchain network has been fully deployed at this degree of scale.
The IBM Food Trust platform, as it is known, has heretofore been demoed exclusively in pilots and proofs of concept – to trace mangoes throughout a supply chain, for example. In September, retail giant Walmart announced that it would begin requiring its suppliers to implement the system to track bags of spinach and heads of lettuce.
But on Monday, IBM announced that its solution-as-a-service cloud platform is now available to all players in the food supply chain, a move that will likely drive unprecedented visibility and veracity into the sourcing and certification of fresh produce and proteins.
Included in the first cohort of adopters are Carrefour – the French retailer which boasts 12,000 stores across 33 countries, cooperatives Topco Associates and Wakefern – which combine to represent more than 15,000 stores globally – and suppliers BeefChain, Smithfield and Dennick Fruit Source.
Other participants include multinational companies Nestle, Kroger, Tyson Foods, Kroger and Unilever.
The rollout should help put to rest the criticism that, in spite of all the hype it has garnered over the last two years, blockchain technology offers few real-world use cases aside from cryptocurrencies like bitcoin.
Also, the de-siloing and collaborative approach required by companies participating in the platform will provide a glimpse into the distributed and network-based business models of the future.
“The currency of trust today is transparency and achieving it in the area of food safety happens when responsibility is shared,” explained Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president for IBM Global Industries, Platforms and Blockchain, adding:
“That collaborative approach is how the members of IBM Food Trust have shown blockchain can strengthen transparency and drive meaningful enhancements to food traceability. Ultimately, that provides business benefits for participants and a better and safer product for consumers.”
What makes the solution such a remarkable breakthrough, explained Brigid McDermott – vice president of IBM Food Trust, is that it successfully overcomes five critical barriers to enterprise blockchain implementation.
These include building an ecosystem, creating a business model that adds value for all parties, implementing a governance structure for securing data and access rights, ensuring interoperability and standardization so as to integrate with other platforms and building the system on top of battle-tested enterprise technology.
Addressing all of these areas was critical to ensuring that all players in the ecosystem – whether they be a grower, wholesaler or retailer – earn a return on their investment for participating, though the value realized by certain parties may be larger and generated more quickly than with others.
“At the end of the day, you can’t force people to do something that’s not in their own best interest. There has to be a fundamental ROI to join,” McDermott told Forbes. “From the beginning, we’ve had that driver of ‘What is the ROI for each of the different segments.’”
The value generated can take both monetary and non-monetary forms. For example, participation in the consortium will serve as a foundational pillar of Carrefour’s Act for Food corporate responsibility program, explained Laurent Vallée the retailer’s general secretary, adding that:
“Being a founding member of the IBM Food Trust platform is a great opportunity for Carrefour to strongly accelerate and widen the integration of blockchain technology to our products in order to provide our clients with safe and undoubted traceability.”
Solution to Recall Woes
Perhaps most importantly, the traceability delivered by IBM Food Trust figures to generate sector-wide efficiency gains through the ability to specifically identify and locate product that may be subject to a recall, a process that is extremely expensive, wasteful and challenging – if not altogether impossible – under current processes.
Last week, 6.5M pounds of beef were recalled in the United States over salmonella fears in what was reportedly the largest recall order ever issued. The ability to trace and identify the location where a parcel of beef was produced and target the recall toward those items that are specifically impacted will enormously reduce food waste and improve consumer welfare and confidence.
“We use the term ‘supply chain,’ but we all know it’s not really a chain. There’s nothing linear about the way food is provided to any of us – it’s a web of interconnected companies, retailers, suppliers,” explained McDermott, adding:
“What this should mean for consumers is that recalls stop being scare tactics, which is what they’ve been in the past and what they’ve had to be.”
Who Can Use?
Another important aspect of the Food Trust ecosystem is that it is designed to incorporate not just retailers and suppliers but other third parties, such as technology suppliers, that touch the food supply.
Built on top of Hyperledger Fabric, the network is designed to be compatible with GS1 – a standards framework used by much of the food industry – to ensure maximum interoperability in its traceability systems.
“While IBM is a big company that has tremendous technologies, we aren’t going to do everything. Other players out there doing outstanding work,” said McDermott.
As an example, Dole is working via the platform with a grower-owned partner called Centricity to connect audit data to the blockchain.
“By simplifying on-farm and front-office reporting and putting data on the blockchain, IBM Food Trust has helped Dole unlock the value of compliance data across our suppliers and partners in a cost-effective way,” said Natalie Dyenson, Dole’s vice president for food safety and quality.
Other involved third parties include 3M, which is enabling food safety diagnostic equipment to communicate with the blockchain, and Emerson – which is incorporating its cold chain technology to provide and track temperature information throughout the food transport process.
The Food Trust platform is comprised of three modules. The tracing module facilitates the tracking of food products throughout the ecosystem and across borders, the certification module verifies the provenance of products that have been digitally certified as organic or fair trade, and the data entry and access module gives growers and supply chain intermediaries the ability to upload, manage and access their data within the system.
Pricing for the trace and certification modules starts at $100 per month and is tiered differently for small, medium and large businesses. The data entry and access module is available for use without charge.
Put it all together, McDermott argued, the transformative impact on the food industry and on society will not be insignificant:
“I’m not a food safety expert, I’m an ex-McKinsey consultant, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything that’s as powerful of a tool as blockchain.”