Blockchain can provide us speed and efficiencies in digital lot traceability, as Walmart showed with its groundbreaking use of the technology to pinpoint the origin of mangoes to an off-shore supplier in seconds rather than in days.
However, the lesser known part of that case study is how it revealed the assumed country of origin was incorrect. Now that Frank Yiannis, formerly of Walmart, is with the FDA, there is a renewed commitment to work with the fresh produce industry to bring this same speed and accuracy to lot track and trace functions in food safety and public health during emerging outbreaks.
A lot of hard work by many engaged stakeholders is currently underway to get the details and broadest launch of blockchain right the first time out of the gate. Many of the foreseeable issues, unintended consequences and barriers are being addressed.
The greatest benefit will be as a critical support to the hard work of epidemiology and – most importantly to consumer trust – timely and accurate industry and consumer notifications of implicated products to limit further exposure.
Blockchain provides benefits in food safety system design, enhancement and implementation. But rapid traceability systems are far less likely to fulfill predictive needs, such as prevention of product contamination.
Across the supply chain, there are implementation hurdles to secure broad industry participation and transparency. Key advantages of blockchain are secure, immutable, timestamped and verifiably linked information at each transfer point.
An externally facing goal for those in the industry that are implementing blockchain enabled supply chain visibility and traceability solutions is to provide FDA and affiliated public health agencies improved step-wise trace-back and trace-forward analysis – or even leapfrogging traceability – from outbreak cases to points of supply chain lot handling convergence.
Blockchain is only one of many technologies that has been used to enable supply chain visibility and traceability.
Many suppliers already have the capabilities for very rapid and specific traceability, once an implicated lot code, shipping/receiving dates, or other unique item identifiers are provided, without the use of blockchain.
One step forward from a distribution center to multiple foodservice or retail outlets is also achievable. This requires the distribution centers to have the ability to historically retrieve the lot codes and unique item identifiers of the product that is being traced that were in their distribution centers and could have been shipped during the time frame in question. Ultimately, being able to verify the specific lot(s) and unique item identifiers shipped to and received at each store is the goal, but a range of lots and unique item identifiers may need to be good enough for now. This will allow FDA to identify common lot(s) and unique item identifiers and then go directly to the source rather than painstakingly trace back every step in the supply chain from every retail or foodservice outlet back to the supplier.
In order for the regulators to be able to provide timely and accurate industry and consumer notifications of implicated products to limit further exposure, the industry need to have the ability to provide the lot codes and unique item identifiers of the product that is being traced from point of sale at foodservice or retail outlets. This can be provided from the foodservice establishment or retail store or one step back in the supply chain.
Limiting exposure of consumers, in the timeliest manner possible while retaining the least disruptive impacts on commercial markets, is a shared vision being embraced by produce industry leaders in partnership with FDA.
Public health protection and confidence in fresh produce consumption will be enhanced and supported by the deliberative design and deployment of the digital traceability and information sharing systems.