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Global Food Companies Test IBM’s Blockchain System for Traceability

food companies
(Photo Credit: Connie Zhou for IBM)

Over the past year, a group of top global retailers and food companies have been working with IBM on testing blockchain technology to improve traceability in their supply chains. The companies include Nestlé, Unilever, and Walmart. Now CIO Journal reports on how some of the tests are going.

Last August, IBM announced that 10 food producers and retailers had agreed to collaborate with the tech giant and identify new areas where the global supply chain can benefit from blockchain. The participating food companies are Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Unilever, and Walmart.

Called IBM Food Trust, the collaborative network uses the IBM Blockchain Platform to connect participants through a permissioned, permanent, and shared record of food origin details, processing data, shipping, and other details.

“Unlike any technology before it, blockchain is transforming the way like-minded organizations come together and enabling a new level of trust based on a single view of the truth,” said Marie Wieck, general manager, IBM Blockchain.

“When it comes to food safety and traceability and resolving outbreaks, you have to be fast — and you have to be right,” Frank Yiannas, VP of food safety for Walmart, said at the time. In tests, IBM’s blockchain technology can track a product from the farm through every stage of the supply chain to the retail shelf in as fast as 2.2 seconds compared to days or weeks.

Safety is top of mind for the current participants. “Food recalls can diminish consumer confidence and lead to lost sales,” Kim S. Nash reported in CIO Journal. “The theory is that having partners and competitors share a single record-keeping system can speed up investigations of bad food and make recalls more accurate and less expensive.”

Baby Food Traceability

Nestlé chose a popular variety of its Gerber line for its blockchain test, Chris Tyas, global head of supply chain at the Swiss company, told Nash. The process required lots of work, including moving data from the company’s SAP SE enterprise software onto the shared digital ledger as well as dealing with a mixture of data formats.

“The baby food experiments involve multiple ingredients and some cross-border transactions,” Nash wrote. “In one test, Nestlé is working with farmers and processors of apples, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin. In another, the partner is a mango provider in Colombia.”

Tyas told CIO Journal that another challenge for Nestlé in adopting blockchain for traceability is building interfaces that connect all of the company’s various software systems related to managing ingredients with the new IBM technology.

However, the potential benefits for the company are clear. “People want to know, quite rightly, where ingredients they give to their baby have come from,” he said. “We wanted a product in which trust meant something.”

Since IBM Food Trust began, there have been over 350,000 food data transactions on the platform. “These items represent dozens of individual food items, from vegetables, meats, to spices, fruits and more, and now fresh water fish fillets,” Forbes reported this summer. “IBM notes that the use of blockchain technology can reduce the cost of the average product recall by up to 80%.”

Anyone can join the network although there is currently limited availability, IBM says. General availability is expected to be announced later this year.

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