Here’s how blockchain can return confidence to Australia’s food industry

The needle found in strawberries bought from Woolworths Strathpine. Joshua Gane/Facebook

It has been a challenging year for Australia’s food industry. News of needles in strawberries and fake honey – has put the livelihoods of farmers and the industry’s broader reputation at stake. While tighter safety regulations and more stringent self-checks have a part to play, it is increasingly clear that better traceability and transparency could help Australia’s food supply chains prevent future incidents like these from disrupting business owners’ and consumers’ lives.

One possible source of that transparency? Blockchain. The technology could give producers, distributors, and retailers a single source of truth about every shipment that passes through our incredibly complex food supply chains. Blockchain technology may even help businesses regain and reinforce trust from the Australian public – acting as a “certification of excellence” that consumers could rely on when choosing products off the shelf.

Placing higher emphasis on traceability

Producers, distributors and retailers often blindly have to trust each other when operating their supply chains. For instance, instead of conducting stringent and time-consuming background checks on the authenticity of their shipped produce, food retailers will often choose to trust the quality assurance processes of their suppliers. While this simplifies supply chains, it becomes problematic when a food crisis occurs – often plunging businesses into a race against time to locate the source of contamination. At the start of a crisis, the standard operating procedure would be to conduct a blanket recall of all products – even uncontaminated ones – as both a cautionary measure and an effort to buy more time.

While the immediate effects of this – profit loss, supply line disruption, food wastage – are bad enough, it is the long-term consequences, namely the breach of customer trust that can really topple reputations. The longer it takes to pinpoint the source of a contamination and act, the greater the risk of public outcry. It’s in the interest of every participant or stakeholder to make tracing any product batch easier throughout the entire supply chain.

Blockchain would do this by creating a record of every such batch – one that’s automatically updated as it goes from field to factory to supermarket fridge and can’t be edited without the permission of every party along that supply chain. That creates a data trail which improves the track and trace capabilities throughout the supply chain – potentially allowing problematic batches to be identified and isolated within hours instead of weeks and paving the way for more purposeful action.

This sort of visibility means food companies would be able to identify contamination with far greater accuracy and speed than ever before. In the case of fresh produce contamination, for example, producers could send instructions to retailers to pull only affected batches off the shelves, while providing hard data to customers and regulators to show that other batches were safe for consumption. That would’ve made it easier for farmers and distributors to contain the furore, regain public trust and even identify those responsible with far greater speed and fidelity.

Customers want greater transparency

Blockchain could also, perhaps surprisingly, help the food industry in giving consumers what they want. We already know that the presence of a blockchain tracking system would dramatically raise the attention given to food security and integrity: operators are less likely to cut corners if they know their effort – or lack thereof – can be seen by every other partner. This will potentially place food supply chains in closer alignment with evolving consumer habits – namely an increased consciousness towards the origins of food products.

Making the food supply chain more transparent allows shipments to better adhere to today’s ever-tightening food safety regulations. With the right amount of data points, the condition of all shipments can be automatically mapped: time spent in storage or for pallets to be loaded and even minute-by-minute ambient temperatures of shipments. This in turn, allows participants of the supply chain to be confident in their ability to comply with the regulations of any country they ship too, no matter how long or complex the supply chain becomes.

Further, this level of transparency would also help answer consumers’ growing questions about where their food comes from. Customers are increasingly concerned about the authenticity and safety of their food sources. Only 26 percent of shoppers fully trust the labels on their food, while the rest will dig deeper and alter their buying habits – and brand loyalties – according to the information they uncover. Food companies or supply chains that can provide more accurate information on how their food is grown, packed, processed and shipped along the supply chain will be in a better position to give consumers the confidence they desire.

It’s still early days yet for blockchain, yet it holds great potential for transforming the way we bring food from the farm and onto our tables. If used correctly, it could help demystify today’s complex and sprawling food supply chains, making it easier to ensure the security and safety of the food that we eat. Australians deserve peace of mind when buying their food – and blockchain technology could provide it like never before. The benefits for food safety and customer loyalty are worth digesting for any farmer, distributor, or retailer.

Scott Newman is a Senior Director at Oracle ANZ. He manages the Australian and New Zealand pre-sales team that specialises in IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service), Data Platform Services, and Insights & Analytics. At Oracle, his experience has largely focused with the core technologies (infrastructure and middleware) around the latest products and solutions.