E. coli
Cryptocurrencies,  Innovators

Using blockchain to battle E. coli and blood diamonds

2018 has not been a kind year to Romaine lettuce. Just before Thanksgiving, the popular salad mix began its second major recall in the United States this year due to contamination by E. coli bacteria.

And on Dec. 6, while the U. S. Centers for Disease Control reiterated its Romaine warning, the U.S. Department of Agriculture added another 2,500 tons of ground beef to the 3,500-ton recall issued on Tuesday over a salmonella outbreak. In fact, salmonella has forced the destruction of turkey, pork, chicken, eggs, tahini sauce, and even Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal this year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. There are a lot of ways for food to go bad as it moves from the farm to your table.

That’s where blockchain can help by providing a secure, unalterable, transparent and easily searchable database of where produce came from, how it was transported, and which middlemen and retailers touched it before it ended up on the consumer’s plate.

On Oct. 18, IBM announced the general availability of its IBM Food Trust blockchain-based cloud network after 18 months of testing. IBM Food Trust uses blockchain’s distributed ledger technology to allow food growers, processors, transporters, suppliers, retailers and other food industry suppliers to easily, instantly, and transparently track produce from the field all the way to the supermarket shelf, ensuring that any contamination can be traced back to its source quickly. This is important for two reasons: first, obviously, so that food contaminated with pathogens that can spoil, sicken, injure, or even kill can be quickly removed from the supply chain. Secondly, it could prevent the destruction of uncontaminated produce that is currently swallowed up in wholesale food recalls.

Speed is critical in stopping the spread of contaminated produce to consumers, and right now, the process is painfully, even lethally slow.

The first major Romaine lettuce E. coli contamination case this year was detected on April 4, according to the Food and Drug Administration. On April 10, the FDA announced the outbreak to the public but could not identify the source of the contaminated lettuce. On April 13, the Yuma, Ariz., growing region was identified as the source of the outbreak. The final day of the Yuma Romaine lettuce harvest season was April 16, but the FDA could not confirm that until May 2. But because Romaine lettuce has a 21-day shelf life, the FDA could not be certain that all of the contaminated Yuma lettuce was out of the supply chain. It was not until June 28 that the CDC announced that the outbreak was over. By the time it was over, 210 people were infected in 36 states. Ninety-six of them were hospitalized, and five died.

Using IBM Food Trust blockchain technology, “food can be quickly traced back to its source in as little as a few seconds instead of days or weeks,” required by the current manual methods, the company says.

In fact, the New York Times in September reported that in a test, IBM Food Trust allowed Walmart, an early adopter of the blockchain technology, to cut the time it took to trace a package of sliced mangoes from its shelf to the Mexican farm that grew it from seven days using existing methods to a few seconds. That month, Walmart announced that it would begin requiring all suppliers of two leafy greens, spinach and lettuce, to use the IBM Food Trust technology by Sept. 2019.

Beyond Food Safety

French supermarket giant Carrefour is another early adopter of IBM Food Trust, and its use of the blockchain technology is not just focused on safety.

In March, Carrefour announced that it had implemented blockchain tracking of its free-range Carrefour Quality Line Auvergne chickens. The company sells one million of the free-range, GMO-free birds each year to French consumers, who “will be able to find out where and how each animal was reared, the name of the farmer, what feed was used (whether or not they were fed on French cereals and soya beans, on GMO-free products, etc.), what treatments were used (antibiotic-free, etc.), any quality labels, where they were slaughtered, etc.” the company said.

In France — and the EU as a whole — where regional certification of produce is both important to consumers and heavily protected by law, the technology will enable consumers to scan a QR code on Carrefour Quality Line Auvergne chickens that will trace each bird back to the farm where it was raised, the company said.

“This is a first in Europe and will provide consumers with guaranteed complete transparency as far as the traceability of our products is concerned, said Laurent Vallée, Carrefour’s general secretary and head of quality and food safety, in the March 6 press release.

In July, the company expanded the program to include its Carrefour Quality Line tomato, including information detailing the farm on which the tomatoes were grown and certifying that they were grown in the ground without herbicides, and were hand-picked. Plans are underway to expand the program to include eggs, cheese, oranges, salmon and ground beef, among other products.

From Blood Oranges to Blood Diamonds

Food isn’t the only retail product that benefits from blockchain’s traceability and transparency. The diamond and jewelry industry have been coming under growing pressure from consumers and governments in recent years to ensure that gems, gold, and particularly diamonds are not sourced in ways that support often bloody civil wars or mined in ways that violate workers’ human rights.

According to a February, 2018, report by Human Rights Watch, which has been working closely with industry leaders like South African Diamond giant De Beers Group for years, the efforts so far have been “poorly implemented,” “inadequate,” and “weak.”

In May, De Beers announced that blockchain technology from its Tracr project was used to successfully track 100 high-value diamonds “as they moved from the mine to cutter and polisher, then through to a jeweler.”

In October, Russia’s Alrosa, another giant diamond producer, joined the Tracr project.

“To provide true traceability, diamonds must be tracked from their point of production,” said DeBeers Group CEO Bruce Cleaverat the time. “We are delighted that Alrosa has joined the Tracr pilot, as the collective efforts of the world’s two leading diamond producers will enable more of the world’s diamonds to be tracked on their journey from mine to retail.”

Leo Jakobson, Modern Consensus senior editor, is a New York-based journalist who has spent much of the last 15 years covering the employee engagement and recognition business. Before that he covered the East Coast side of the Internet boom and bust, and wrote about politics in New York City. Disclosure: Jakobson owns no cryptocurrencies.

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