Blockchain: The missing link in the life story of your leafy greens

By Evelyn Hytopoulos

The CDC has once again advised U.S. customers to stay away from romaine lettuce, after linking the leafy green with an E. coli outbreak. With scores of people already infected, the need for more effective transparency in the produce supply chain is obvious—and blockchain could be the answer. 

Walmart has already completed a two-year pilot program with IBM aimed at exploring how blockchain can more effectively manage food production, and is ready to make the most of this trending technology to track the production, distribution and sale of leafy greens sold in its stores.

Economic benefits from farm to table

Leafy greens are a logical place to start with the implementation of digital traceability, because they’re often connected to outbreaks of foodborne illness. In the last two years alone, the CDC recorded E. coli outbreaks tied to romaine lettuce and, more broadly, leafy greens.

These outbreaks are costly to grocery retailers across the enterprise. When consumers fall ill from consumption of pathogen-laden leafy greens, stores tend to clear these products off their shelves entirely — regardless of whether their shipment was exposed to the pathogen or not. This is due to an inability to accurately identify particular batches of the pathogen outbreak and distribution of the affected products.

Using this new blockchain technology, Walmart will now have the ability to pinpoint the source of outbreaks and track exactly where affected products were sent. This depth and accuracy of information enables stores to make better decisions at breakneck speed. Walmart’s VP of food safety, Frank Yannis, says that by using blockchain, time to trace produce back to a farm has been reduced “from seven days to 2.2 seconds.”

Walmart’s use of blockchain will also lend itself to greater scalability, increased security, and better data reliability. Integrating new participants onto the blockchain system will be relatively boundless. Data added and stored by all participants on this shared, uneditable ledger will likely require fewer audits as numerical discrepancies are immediately recognizable.

Bringing transparency to consumers

Beyond lowering risks to public health, decreasing food waste, and improving cost efficiency, blockchain is good for business. Today’s consumer wants increased transparency from companies in exchange for brand loyalty, and this includes more information about their food.

Millennials are on the cusp of becoming the United States’ largest adult generation and are known to have markedly different consumer tendencies and cultural standards than their predecessors. With blockchain, Walmart and other brands can make today’s buyer feel like they have more information about their produce.

This is your food on blockchain

Walmart isn’t the only company exploring how blockchain technology can improve the food business. IBM is collaborating with names like Dole, Kroger, Nestle, and Unilever. Other small-scale projects are popping up across the industry as well. Aptly-named BeefChain is using blockchain to create a new “rancher-centric” beef supply chain.

In March of 2018, France’s Carrefour launched Europe’s first food blockchain promising consumers “complete product traceability.” Rolling out the technology to track one line of Carrefour’s free-range eggs, the company plans to extend the protocol across eight animal and vegetable foods in the near future.


Supply chain management 2.0

In areas like supply chain management, digital identities, and secure inter-bank and international transfers, blockchain is moving past proof of concept and into implementation.

Industries like healthcare and shipping and logistics have joined global food supply companies on the blockchain movement. After these initial projects bore through implementation and improve the efficiency and economy of the process along the way, it won’t be long until a new standard for supply chain management is in place.

About the author

Evelyn Hytopoulos is CEO and Founder of EconBloc - a blockchain economics and governance firm working with enterprises and small businesses to develop token economic designs, blockchain economic and monetary policies, marketplace growth strategies, and protocols for market operations.

Evelyn holds an MPA in Public and Economic Policy from London School of Economics and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from U.C. Berkeley.