When a foodborne illness outbreak occurs, the scramble to find its source can take days or even weeks. Inspired by a 2018 E.coli outbreak connected to romaine lettuce that sickened 210 people in 36 states, Walmart partnered with IBM and dove into a fast and furious exploration of blockchain technology as a traceability tool.
The tool, called Hyperledger, was originally tested to track two products: mangoes in the United States, and pork in China. Through Hyperledger, Walmart’s ability to trace the products sped up: prior technology allowed them to trace the origin of a certain batch of mangoes in seven days. Now, the mangoes could be traced in 2.2 seconds. For pork in China, Walmart could now upload certificates of authenticity, an area that was previously an issue, to the blockchain. According to the Hyperledger website, Walmart can now trace the origin of more than 25 products from five different suppliers. The company plans to utilize the system for more products in the future.
Changing the system in which a supply is tracked is no small feat. At New Jersey Manufacturing Program Manufacturing Day in Somerset on Friday, Juliana Canale, the program’s food industry safety, compliance and regulatory solutions specialist, discussed how food manufacturers of all sizes can benefit from the technology, and customers can, too.
The buy-in to blockchain comes at a significant cost, but one that is offset by eventual savings, she said.
It allows food manufacturers to track any kind of unique identifier data, be it bar code, lot number, best by date, or food allergen.
“Once data is entered into the blockchain, it can’t be changed. It’s really groundbreaking technology. Any other program you have, there’s modifications that can happen with it” which makes the information less secure, Canale said. “But when this is entered it can’t be changed, which gives you the peace of mind that you’re able to consistently track that information as you’re moving forward from piece to piece.”
Allergens are to blame for a bulk of food recalls, she explained. Managing where they are is essential, and by using blockchain to manage movement in-house, manufacturers able to better segregate product in their production and distribution center to avoid compromising other foods.
Blockchain is only as good as the data that’s entered into it, she said.
“The most important thing is making sure you have the best data, that there’s nothing missing, that it’s complete,” she said. “Its a great tool to have in your toolbox, but only as good as the input. You need really good reliable data to put into your program.”