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American retailing giant Walmart is partnering with IBM to bring in traceability and transparency to its entire food supply network with the blockchain, Walmart’s food safety VP Frank Yiannis told Computerworld UK at the newly opened IBM Watson IoT centre in Munich.

The company began a 12-month project to think about how it could leverage technology to make its food supply chain more efficient, and get fresher produce to customers. Walmart is working on a pilot in China that will be tracking and tracing pork, and plans to run a similar scheme in the US with other produce.

“We’ve had a series of meetings with IBM to identify the parameters,” Yiannis said. “What are the data attributes we capture? How will they be captured at each point in the food system? They’ve already started programming and developing user interfaces so it’s going along very well.” 

The initiative is, on the surface, very clearly one of food safety - but according to Yiannis there’s more to it than that, and all stakeholders will be able to benefit. That’s as long as there’s industry collaboration, because tracing and tracking falls apart if there are unknown goods circulating in the chain.

“The issue of being able to track and trace where food comes from, and how it flows from the farm to the table, has always been something organisations and companies have had an interest in,” he explained. “And people have attempted to do it. But the way it’s done today is very inconsistent, there is no standard.”

“In the United States you have to do ‘one step up, one step back’, but if you think about today’s modern food system, in some ways it’s increasingly complex but it adds a lot of benefits. For example, you might have a farmer, and that produced item might enter a food processing facility, and then on to a distribution centre - there are a lot of steps.

“If at each point in the food system you only have the requirement for one step up, one step back, there’s no full view. It’s done using disparate methods, different methods, and today by and large the reality is it’s largely done on paper so you can’t do it fast, you can’t do it accurately, you can’t see the whole thing.”

Using a combination of IoT sensors and the blockchain, Walmart hopes it will be able to allow for the tracing and tracking of produce quickly, with the full view, and in a trusted way. 

“The benefits are potentially numerous,” Yiannis said. “When people talk about the food safety benefits, for example, when there’s a food scandal - oftentimes what will happen is health officials will say we’ve seen some illnesses documented in the country, and we think consumers shouldn’t eat, for example, spinach.”

“What happens is everybody’s guilty until proven innocent, all of this product comes off of the shelf, everybody is incriminated,” he said. “Generally when the dust settles you find out that it was one supplier, maybe one production line - so if you had the ability to identify this quickly you could target and remove the product quickly and protect people from getting ill.” 

The traceability data points that Walmart and IBM identified include the farm location, or lot number, or the date of a harvest. But what the company calls transparency attributes are different: including whether the food is sustainably grown, whether it is born organically, or if pesticides were used in the production of the food. Walmart wants to combine all of these points for the full picture.

“We think if we do that for the entire food system there would be intelligence gained, when you see the long view, that will optimise the food system,” Yiannis said. “So we have no doubt that could lead to a better flow of food from farm to fork - for every day of shelf life you take out of the flow of food, that’s a day of shelf life you give back to the customer.

“As soon as you’ve picked that strawberry it starts dying, and your goal is to get that strawberry from the farm to the customer as soon as possible - so the more efficient you can do that the better.”

Ultimately Walmart expects consumers could interact with labels on their food, perhaps using a smartphone app, to bring up the journey of the product and any other information that they want to see. For this to work, of course, would require the active participation of many other big players in the food industry.

"Our view is for a solution like this there is the need to collaborate,” Yiannis said. “This food system of ours is a pretty complex food system, there are a lot of actors and players in it, so we envision a blockchain solution for food transparency to be collaborative, and we want as many people in food production to be involved and engaged in that.”

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