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Can blockchain make food safer in China?

Thor Olavsrud | Oct. 20, 2016
Aiming to secure the food supply chain and improve traceability, IBM is working with Walmart and Tsinghua University to use blockchain to enhance food safety in China.

IBM, in conjunction with global retailer Walmart and Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, is harnessing blockchain technology to bring safer food to the table in China.

The partnership was announced this morning as part of the opening of the new Walmart Food Safety Collaboration Center in Beijing. The collaboration will pilot blockchain for food authentication and record-keeping in the supply chain, providing a permanent record of every transaction.

"China's rapid economic growth has led to massive opportunities for innovation, but it has also presented quality of life challenges, including ensuring that food sold in the country is safe to eat," Professor Chai Yueting, National Engineering Laboratory of Electronic Commerce Transaction Technology, Tsinghua University, said in a statement today.

Yueting hopes that Tsinghua University's work with IBM and Walmart will serve as a global model for food safety that others will be able to follow and replicate.

Blockchain is a distributed database that consists of blocks of items - each block is a timestamped batch of valid individual transactions and the hash of the previous block, creating a link between the two. Because each timestamp includes the previous timestamp in its hash, it forms a chain. Each new transaction must be authenticated across the distributed network of computers that form the blockchain before it can form the next block in the chain.

A digital food chain

The partners say blockchain will enable digitally tracking food products from an ecosystem of suppliers to store shelves and finally on to consumers. It will digitally connect food items to digital product information including farm origination details, batch numbers, factory and processing data, expiration dates, storage temperatures and shipping details. The relevant information will be entered into the blockchain at every step of the process of moving food from suppliers to consumers. The information in each transaction is agreed upon by all members of the business network; once there is a consensus, it becomes a permanent record that can't be altered. This helps assure that all information about the item is accurate.

The pilot project is designed to trace pork as it moves from suppliers to Walmart's shelves. By the time food is sold to a consumer at a Walmart store, each individual item will have been authenticated using blockchain technology to create a transparent, security-rich and traceable record. The record created by the blockchain can also help retailers like Walmart better manage the shelf-life of products in individual stores, and further strengthen safeguards related to food authenticity.

"Advanced technology has reached into so many aspects of modern life, but it has lagged in food traceability, and in particular in creating more secure food supply chains," Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president, Industry Platforms, IBM, said in a statement Wednesday. "Food touches all of us, everywhere, and ensuring the safety of what we eat is a global effort, so we are experimenting in China with Walmart and Tsinghua given the size and scale of food consumption in this country."


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