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Romaine, blockchain and the future of food safety

Romaine lettuce dominated headlines this spring, when nearly 100 people became ill after eating romaine tainted with E.coli. This particular strain of bacteria was especially strong, with half of the people affected requiring hospitalization. While, thankfully, nobody died from this particular foodborne illness outbreak, food safety is an increasingly serious public health crisis. In addition to the romaine outbreak, there were 38 food-related recalls filed with the FDA just in April 2018 alone.

A huge challenge around foodborne illness outbreaks is pinpointing exactly where the tainted food originated, where it was distributed, and where it was served or sold. In this particular case, the romaine originated in Yuma, Arizona, and was distributed to restaurants and stores nationwide. There was no way to immediately determine which stores were selling the tainted romaine, and which restaurants were serving it, making it difficult to track and manage a successful and thorough recall.

Imagine a different scenario: What if restaurants, retailers, and other food businesses could track a head of lettuce through every step from farm to shelf? What if there was a way to determine whether the romaine in your kitchen was part of the tainted quantity from Yuma, Arizona? What if you could immediately and accurately find out if any of your produce had been involved in a food safety recall?

Blockchain technology is quickly becoming the “next hot thing” in other industries. Now, for instance, retailers can track a pair of jeans from when it’s created until it’s sold. Blockchain can follow that pair of jeans through its entire “life cycle,” identifying—in real time—exactly where it is: on a delivery truck, in a warehouse, at the retailer. Now, blockchain is looking promising for the food industry and could be integral to keeping our foods (and consumers) healthier and safer.

Blockchain is a shared database of continuously updated and encrypted transactions. Instead of companies all running complex proprietary systems, they would share a standard blockchain solution that would decentralize the proprietary ownership of data. This innovative technology will allow restaurants and other food businesses to monitor their shipments, ensuring they’re receiving—and serving—safe food.

Walmart is working to bring blockchain to the food service industry, aiming to reduce or prevent the safety issues plaguing America’s food industries. Long before Chipotle’s food safety crisis cost the company billions, this savvy company recognized that every food service company is only one food safety crisis away from massive brand destruction.

Walmart’s efforts are admirable. A decade ago, the retail giant pushed the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) as a new standard. Five years later, Walmart’s Food Safety Executive, Frank Yiannis, unveiled SPARK, a paperless auditing system that integrated early versions of Bluetooth thermometers. Walmart has demonstrated a long, successful history as a technology-forward retailer, and they continue to invest heavily to protect their food supply chain.

But while this system was deployed throughout Walmart’s corporate network, it did not deeply penetrate their supply chain. In fact, the vast majority of Walmart’s suppliers still keep paper records, which are housed in file cabinets. As a result, important data can’t be integrated, analyzed or shared. IBM and Walmart want to incorporate blockchain throughout the food industry, but the core “technology” of the food industry is paper and pens.

For technologies like blockchain to work effectively, food businesses need to transition from antiquated pen and pencil record-keeping (which is the industry norm) to digital solutions. After all, paper data stored in a file cabinet can’t be integrated or encrypted into a blockchain. We must get more restaurants and other food service companies to use digital solutions.

It’s a difficult hurdle to jump because many within the food industry are reluctant to switch from clipboards to digital systems because they fear that any tech solutions will be expensive and complicated. The truth is that technology has become much more mainstream, accessible and affordable, and there are simple, user-friendly options that any restaurant—or other food business—can leverage.

Case in point: the recent romaine lettuce outbreak was difficult manage because so many people involved were using paper records, making it nearly impossible to track the lettuce that was widely distributed. That meant that restaurants in multiple states were unknowingly serving their guests tainted food, and grocery stores were selling compromised produce. It does not have to be this way.

As restaurants shift to fresher, more fragile ingredients, blockchain is a critical initiative to protect and ensure food safety. But there is no food blockchain without data that is digitally recorded, stored and shared every step of the way.

Implementing blockchain—and other technologies—in the food business will be a multi-step process. The first (important) step is to get more food businesses to transition from paper safety systems to digital solutions. Going digital is easy, affordable, and a critical step to safer food – especially as more food businesses adopt tech solutions.

There are so many promising technologies that will help elevate food safety within the industry. New innovations will help prevent or reduce food safety incidents and outbreaks, keeping our products, guests, and businesses safer. Digital sensors that measure temperature and moisture will be far better than our current systems. Digital photography has enormous potential for auditing, training, and corrective action improvements. And, of course, blockchain has the potential to be an industry game changer. People within the food industry should embrace digital solutions to keep their customers and businesses safer.
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