Blockchain technology’s ability to make food supply chains safer is about to be tested by fire in the epicenter of unsafe produce, China.
Walmart China announced on June 25 that it has partnered with a local trade association, a beef producer, consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and blockchain firm VeChain to create the Walmart China Blockchain Traceability Platform.
While food provenance blockchains are being used in many countries for reasons that include food safety—Walmart’s U.S. division began using the IBM Food Trust blockchain by tracking leafy greens following 2018’s Romaine lettuce contamination problems—as well as fighting fake drugs. But proving chicken and produce are really organic is a fast-growing use in Europe and the U.S. In China, consumers’ trust in food safety is the key selling point.
“In the face of food safety, how to build consumer trust is a problem that PwC, our clients and partners have been trying to solve,” said Elton Yeung, strategy and innovation leader of PwC Mainland China and Hong Kong. “We believe that Walmart’s Blockchain Traceability System will be an excellent example of blockchain technology applied in the retail industry, helping to improve food safety and quality management, and providing a strong guarantee for building consumer trust.”
Food reliability is not a minor issue in China. From Tuesday’s news that authorities seized $500 million worth of frozen meat that dated as far back as the 1970s to February’s recall of pork tainted with African swine fever, China’s food safety record is atrocious, and consumers know it. A deadly 2008 case of infant formula tainted with melamine—for which two executives were executed—has Chinese parents refusing to use locally-produced brands a decade later. And it’s not just bad actors. Two years ago, The Economist reported cases of pollution causing farmers to grow rice in cadmium-tainted soil.
“Walmart has always worked to provide reliable products of quality and convenient services to customers, which is our core value proposition,” said Shi Jiaqi, chief corporate affairs officer of Walmart China. “With this target in mind, Walmart has continuously invested in the whole supply chain.”
Built on the public VeChainThor blockchain, the traceability platform is aimed squarely at consumers, not just supply chain efficiencies. Shoppers will be able to use smartphones scan produce on the shelves to track it back to the source and region, trace shipping, and obtain product inspection reports, among other information. So far 23 products are live, with 100 ranging from meat and rice to cooking oil and mushrooms scheduled to be added by the end of the year.
Food safety and consumer trust is a growing government concern. In February, the central government announced new food safety requirements, ordering local governments to increase supervision, accountability, and efficiency standards. And last November, China Daily reported that China implemented a reward system to encourage whistleblowers who expose food and drug safety problems.
Calling the launch of Walmart China’s Blockchain Traceability Platform “of great significance to the commercial application of blockchain technology,” VeChain COO Kevin Feng added that his company would “work with Walmart China to actively take heed of the call of the government, by utilizing technology to promote the traceability of fresh food … so as to generate more transparent and reassuring consumption experience.”
VeChain offers blockchain-as-a-service solutions incorporating internet of things (IoT) RFID tracing technology. Its services have been used in tracing the supply chain and provenance of goods as diverse as wine, luxury products, automobiles, and carbon emission credits.