Earlier this spring, the CDC started issuing warnings about an E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona. Since many food businesses rely on antiquated pen and paper record-keeping, as opposed to digital technologies, it was challenging to pinpoint exactly where the tainted lettuce came from and where it was shipped, sold and served.
As it turns out, nearly all the romaine consumed in America from November to April is grown in the Yuma region, and the product was widely distributed across the country. This particular strain of E. coli was strong, and 50 percent of the people sickened by the romaine had to be hospitalized.
Today's consumers are demanding fresh, locally sourced food, which means ingredients are more susceptible to food safety issues than at any point in recent history. The recent (massive) romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak — and subsequent product recall — illustrates this point. Food businesses must evolve to use more innovative, sophisticated, digital systems to protect our food and our health.
Walmart, one of America's most powerful food companies, has been advocating for a new food safety solution built on the promise of the next great technological breakthrough — blockchain technology. Together with IBM, they have conducted experiments and gathered the business media to spotlight their results. It's possible that blockchain could help improve the serious safety issues plaguing America's food industries. For blockchain to work, though, more food service companies need to adopt digital solutions instead of pen and paper systems.
Blockchain could change the way we record, access and analyze data, using a shared database of continuously updated and encrypted transactions. Instead of food businesses all running complex proprietary systems, they would share a standard blockchain solution that would decentralize the proprietary ownership of data. For Walmart (and other retailers), this makes sense because they want to sell romaine lettuce (and other foods) that won't make customers sick. The best way to do that is to know exactly where that lettuce has been from the moment it was planted, through harvesting, transporting and delivering it to their stores. If every food company was using the same blockchain solution, Walmart and other retailers would know everything about that head of lettuce because they could track every step from farm to shelf.
Walmart's safety initiatives should be admired. Long before Chipotle's massive food safety crisis cost the company billions, Walmart recognized that every food service company is only one food safety crisis away from massive brand destruction. A decade ago, Walmart pushed the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) as a new standard.
Five years later, Walmart and its immensely well-regarded Food Safety Executive, Frank Yiannis, unveiled SPARK, a paperless auditing system that integrated early versions of Bluetooth thermometers. Innovations like these protect the brand, shareholders, reputation and customers. Walmart has a long history as a technology-forward retailer. As the world's largest retailer, Walmart has invested heavily to protect its food supply chain. Wouldn't our food (and our consumers) be safer if other companies did the same?
The good news is that this system was deployed throughout Walmart's corporate network. The bad news is that it has not yet deeply penetrated its supply chain. The result: The vast majority of Walmart's suppliers still conduct audits on paper that get filed in cabinets. IBM and Walmart want to introduce blockchain throughout the food industry, but the food safety industry relies on pen and paper for important safety standards and protocols, and they need to transition to digital data collection to make blockchain a viable solution.
Foodborne illness is on the rise, with consumers becoming ill from eating tainted lettuce, burritos, and even breakfast cereal. When it comes to the inspection, compliance, and auditing data, nearly all food companies collect their data with a clipboard, paper, and pen. Paper records stored in a file cabinet obviously can't get encrypted into a blockchain, making it very challenging to track and recall tainted products.
There are a variety of promising new technologies that can help reduce and prevent food safety crises. Digital sensors that measure temperature and moisture will be far better than our current systems. Digital photography has enormous potential for auditing, training, and corrective action improvements. Blockchain holds enormous potential in tracking and reporting on food through every step of its evolution — from soil to shelf. Other industries are exploring blockchain as a powerful solution — the food industry should, as well.
Food is fragile and complicated, and keeping our foods safe is no easy feat. Blockchain is a critical initiative as our country shifts to fresher, more fragile ingredients. But there is no food blockchain without safety data that is digitally recorded and stored every step of the way. We need to insist that food businesses take an important first step and transition to digital record-keeping. Otherwise, critical safety data will never make it into the shared database, and the blockchain system won't be able to protect our foods, companies and customers.