The second-largest supermarket chain in the U.S. has decided to test the power of blockchain technology on one of the most dangerous foods of 2018: romaine lettuce, which killed five Americans and sickened 282 over the course of two Shiga toxin-producing E.coli outbreaks, one beginning in the spring and the second before Thanksgiving.
On April 11, Albertsons Companies announced that it had joined the blockchain-based IBM Food Trust network and begun a pilot program to trace romaine lettuce stored at one of its food distribution centers from the farm to the store shelf.
A cloud-based, permissioned blockchain built on Hyperledger Fabric, IBM Food Trust builds a shared but secure digital record of transactions and interactions ranging from a packaging date to the temperature at which the product was shipped to its arrival on the supermarket shelf.
Many of the companies testing IBM Food Trust are interested in the speed and financial benefits blockchain brings to supply chain management, as well as marketing issues like providing customers with the ability to see where the produce they buy comes from.
But food safety is a major goal of the project and it is also an urgent one. The two outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 took 10 and eight weeks, respectively, to trace to the source and eradicate from the food supply. The first was announced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on April 10 and not declared over until June 28. It originated in the Yuma, AZ, region and affected 36 U.S. states and Canada, where it was declared over on June 22. Deaths were reported in Arkansas, California, Minnesota, and New York.
The second outbreak, saw its first hospitalization on Oct. 7 and was not declared officially over by the CDC until Jan. 9, 2019. It originated in Santa Barbara County, CA, and affected 16 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. No deaths were reported, but two people suffered kidney failure.
It’s not just romaine lettuce however. The FDA notes that the CDC “estimates that foodborne illness affects nearly 50 million people annually, which is about one in six Americans. Of these, an estimated 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year.”
“Multiple high-profile consumer advisories from the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) demonstrate the need to find more efficient ways of tracing products and identifying likely sources of contamination in a timely manner,” said Jerry Noland, vice president of food safety & quality assurance for Albertsons Companies, which operates nearly 2,300 supermarkets under 20 brands, including Albertsons, Safeway and Vons. “Consequently, retailers are exploring new technologies to improve the infrastructure that underpins the global food supply chain.”
That is something the FDA is strongly encouraging, without mentioning blockchain specifically. At the height of the Thanksgiving romaine recall, FDA Commissioner Peter Gottleib, MD, said that tracing packaged leafy greens was “particularly challenging” because a great deal of the finished product was sourced from multiple farms.
“As a result, our investigation [of the spring E.coli outbreak] involved collecting documentation from each point in the supply chain to verify the movement of product back to the Yuma area,” Gottleib said on Nov. 1, 2018. “Complicating this already large-scale investigation, the majority of the records collected in this investigation were either paper or handwritten.”
Gottleib strongly encouraged the industry to “adopt traceability best practices and state-of-the-art technology to assure quick, accurate and easy access to key data elements from farm to fork.”
In a February review of the second romaine E.coli outbreak of 2018, the FDA reiterated that, saying that it “believes that widespread industry adoption of existing and emerging technologies, that can be used to trace product from the field to the consumer’s kitchen in real time, is critical to protecting the public.”
The Albertsons pilot’s goal is to seek a “solution to help overcome the obstacles that have existed when a traceback is initiated for a product like romaine,” according to a statement by the IBM Food Trust. It will also evaluate ways to use the technology to highlight the provenance of the many foodstuffs in its Own Brands label.
One of the first IBM Food Trust pilot programs was by the French supermarket chain Carrefour, which began by allowing consumers to trace each package of free-range, GMO-free chickens sold under its Carrefour Quality Line brand back to the Auvergne-region farm in which it was raised.
This marketing potential is not lost on Albertsons. While calling food safety “a very significant step,” Anuj Dhanda, CIO of Albertsons Companies, said, “[b]lockchain technology has the potential to be transformational for us as we further build differentiation on our fresh brands. [T]he provenance of the products enabled by blockchain—the ability to track every move from the farm to the customer’s basket—can be very empowering for our customers.”
With the addition of Albertsons Companies, IBM Food Trust has more than 80 brands using blockchain to provide an immutable, shared yet secure and instantly traceable record of food from the producers and suppliers to shippers and retailers. By enabling greater transparency and collaboration the system will allow stakeholders across the supply chain to work together to trace and authenticate products, which will ultimately create a safer food supply as well as optimizing the supply chain process, IBM said.
“Establishing IBM Food Trust and opening it to the food ecosystem last year was a major milestone in making blockchain real for business,” said Raj Rao, General Manager, IBM Food Trust. “By bringing more members into the network and enabling them to share greater cross-sections of data in a secured environment, we believe our vision of a transformed food ecosystem using blockchain is closer than ever.”