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Using Blockchain to Enhance Food Safety

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There is hardly anyone left on the planet who has not yet heard the word “blockchain.”  For those who recognize the term but have little knowledge of what it really means, the Wikipedia definition is very straightforward: “a blockchain is a system in which a record of transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are maintained across several computers that are linked in a peer-to-peer network.” Now does that make it any less confusing for you? Let’s take a deeper look.

How does blockchain work? 

The key words in the above definition are ‘record of transactions…linked to a network.”  While this is most often applicable to financial transactions, a recent article by Aaron Cohen published in Expert Insights points out the value of creating a shared database across a variety of different transactions – including food.

Beyond connecting business and personal documents, having the ability to track retail items, including food,  could be very useful in minimizing or even preventing food born disease. Instead of wondering which product caused an outbreak, and then trying to determine where the food product originated, the details would be easily accessible from a shared database. By leveraging the blockchain concept, anyone involved in the food industry, from grocers to big box stores to restaurants, could monitor, and track their food shipments. The more quickly critical information can be accessed, the more quickly the outbreak can be contained.

What are the ramifications of disease outbreaks from food?  

From 1998 to 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified dine-in or drive-up fast-food restaurants as the source of 365 E.coli outbreaks, including 5,624 illnesses, 533 hospitalizations, and three deaths.

The health of consumers is the most important issue for anyone in the food sector, but there are additional considerations to address.

Clearly these types of negative statistics immediately build fear and as such create major dilemmas for anyone in the food business. For example, in the December 2015 issue of Health News, author Michelle Hill listed 10 notable E. coli outbreaks at very high profile U.S. fast-food restaurants from McDonalds to Chipotle to KFC. The economic impact and the negative exposure – along with its lasting effects – need to be managed more effectively going forward. 

Blockchain seems to be a game-changer as it offers an efficient digital response to a problem that can have a serious impact, potentially including death. For blockchain to work, though, there must be full participation across the entire supply chain. If companies refuse to give up their individual data, insisting instead on storing the information on paper records rather than adopting a process that is based on a flexible, technology-driven solution, there can be no effective sharing of the critical details that are so essential to ensure the proper surveillance, investigation, and reporting of each situation.     

Chris Martin, CPA, Senior Manager
Sobel & Co.