Blockchain in Food Systems

In the last two decades, there have been significant investments in digitization and logistics that have spurred the proliferation of many innovative, but highly technical solutions. Recordkeeping regulatory requirements and the ever-present need to mitigate food safety risk have facilitated the demand to utilize these technologies in food operations. The food industry has complex supply chains, diverse technology adoption, high throughput, and smaller profit margins.  

Leaders in the food industry must understand these technologies to make informed investment decisions surrounding IT architecture investment and data collection tools. IFT’s Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) has created materials about blockchain, a novel data sharing framework that has special interest within the food industry, and other emerging digital technologies, such as embedded internet enabled sensors or Artificial Intelligence. By utilizing these resources, business leaders may have confidence when navigating products and specifications from both startups and established solution providers.

Toolkit Resources

The items in this toolkit have been assembled to provide you fact-based, scientific resources on this issue for your personal education and when communicating with different audiences.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science offers a Communication Toolkit (Communicating to engage) that provides guidance and tips for being effective in communicating through different channels. You may want to review the AAAS toolkit as you consider using this IFT issue-specific resource in communicating about this issue with your respective networks.  


Communicating to engage [Internet]. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. © 2018 [Accessed 2018 Feb 21].
Newsome R, Balestrini CG, Baum MD, Corby J, Fisher W, Goodburn K, Labuza TP, Prince G, Thesmar HS, Yiannas F. 2014.Applications and perceptions of date labeling of food. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf 13: 745-69.

Blockchain and Traceability Interoperability

Below are frequently asked questions related to blockchain and emerging technologies to help you provide a better understanding of how these technologies leveraged with an open-standards (i.e. interoperability) approach can help improve food traceability.

How is blockchain traceability similar or different from traditional traceability systems?

Blockchain is an infrastructure with characteristics amenable to greater adoption among supply partners than existing traceability tools. It is similar to existing traceability systems in that its goals are to increase interoperability and data availability on your food supply chain. The primary difference comes from blockchain ’s ability to decentralize data housing and rely on encryption for data verification and assurance. Blockchain is also different compared to other traceability systems in that all partners have a copy of the shared ledger. Because all of the information is on the same record complete with timestamps, those who need access for an event, such as a recall, can increase the speed of a traceback investigation.

Can I add blockchain to my current traceability system? If so, how and how difficult will it be to do so?

Yes, blockchain can be added to current traceability systems. A blockchain can almost be thought of as an encryption protocol with a networked component. The source code is available from many blockchain vendors and are customizable enough to complement your current system. However, the availability of vendors for implementing blockchain at the moment are small consulting companies and the direct creators of the blockchain software (e.g. Ethereum and Hyperledger).

Can my current traceability software provider simply add blockchain? What traceability practices do I have to have implemented at a business process level in order for blockchain to be beneficial?

It depends on your traceability provider, the flexibility of the proprietary software, and the blockchain architecture you choose. If your traceability system hosts its own data, it would be relatively straightforward to transition to a blockchain. However, if your current provider has an all-inclusive system including their own data depository, it may be difficult to implement a blockchain. For a blockchain to be beneficial, traceability systems and data need to be digitized to be added onto it.

Getting Started with Blockchain

Will Blockchain help my internal operations, or is it only for external/ supply chain traceability? Can blockchain scale to meet the traceability needs of a broad supply chain network?

Blockchain can help internal operations by having a sustained chained record of tracking events of your supply chain. Internal links can be logged into the blockchain database, though most blockchain architectures focus on external traceability. Blockchain solutions for supply chains are designed to be scaled to meet the needs of a broad supply chain network.

If I want to get started with Blockchain, what should I do?

Evaluating your systems for blockchain is similar to evaluating your business practices for implementing other traceability systems. These assessments include: evaluating your current traceability technology, assessing how your traceability information is currently stored and documenting, evaluating critical tracking events, understanding your current IT infrastructure, and evaluating your IT personnel capabilities to assess whether you will need external consulting or whether in-house staff may be able to independently implement open-source blockchain code.

I am a small company with limited resources. Is blockchain something I should consider or is this something more geared to bigger companies? How can blockchain help a fisher, grower, or rancher? What are the benefits for those businesses?

At this time, investing in blockchain will most likely not benefit a smaller business, such as a fisher, grower, or rancher, any more than a traditional traceability system. Until blockchain providers become more prevalent, investments should be made in traditional traceability systems for smaller food companies. Larger companies, especially retailers, may start requiring inputting traceability data onto their blockchain system, but smaller companies’ investments would be modifying existing data exchange procedures.

Technical Questions

How many more resources, e.g. time, manpower, and costs, are required to manage blockchain traceability vs. the more traditional programs available today? What kind of technical infrastructure must underpin a blockchain?

The resources required to manage a blockchain traceability are similar to pre-existing traceability solutions other than specialized labor. Because of the newness and promise of blockchain, the skillset required to manage blockchain solutions have a premium.  Blockchain expertise has elements of information security, system administration, and supply chain management. The costs of implementing a blockchain depend on the scale and configuration of your current system. If you have a skilled IT team, you may be able to implement an open-source blockchain solution as an internal project without need for external vendors.

How secure is business data in a blockchain?

The record on a blockchain is theoretically immutable to change. Sensitive or non-public information can be protected through the use of smart contracts, but this has yet to be put into practice outside of financial institutions.

How quickly can a recall take place? Is speed of a recall still dependent on pulling affected product off the shelf? How can Blockchain help my business react faster to food security issues? Examples?

If a product is on a blockchain architecture, traceback queries can be reduced to a matter of minutes or even seconds. This is because the blockchain has already verified the information links along the supply chain. However, a blockchain is not necessarily unique to this speed. A centrally housed traceability system by an external vendor can also have a fast recall response time. Walmart’s blockchain pilot with Hyperledger has reduced their recall procedure times down to seconds, albeit in a couple of select product types.

Does transparency mean everyone can see my data? How does blockchain protect proprietary information?

Transparency is a concern in a distributed ledger system. The philosophy of many blockchain innovators is to have as much transparency as possible, which may not be among the goals for a food supply chain. Many blockchain architectures are set up so that every transaction’s contents can be seen throughout the network. While this may be good for a vertically integrated distributor, those whom want to protect certain data may have “smart contracts” within a blockchain that governs the accessibility of information. This idea is still under development among blockchain vendors and consulting firms.

Who establishes the governance model for determining what users may or may not join the blockchain ledger?

Blockchain governance is determined by those setting up the system. Changes to the governance can take place through voting similar to the resolving algorithms of transaction consensus.


Will blockchain help me better meet the new FDA food rules?

Blockchain can help increase traceability information record keeping and increase the speed of recall procedures. Existing traceability systems can be just as effective at keeping with new FDA food rules.

What do you envision next after blockchain? Anything coming in the near future?

Blockchain is often paired with technologies collectively called Internet of Things (IoT). These are internet-capable devices that provide continuous streams of information networked to work in concert. In food traceability, this means that all devices throughout the supply chain continually monitor and provide updates to the record (which could be a blockchain). 

Artificial Intelligence applications will continue to grow, especially in areas of image processing (for quality assurance) and robotics.


The Potential of Blockchain Technology Application in the Food System (2018) 

Below are links to helpful multimedia resources to gain a fuller understanding and to share via your social and personal networks.

Traceability Technology and How it Improves Your Bottom Line (Webcast 2013)

Food Traceability and Blockchain Technology: Revolutionizing Food Security Podcast (2018)

Digital Empowers - Blockchain Technology: Blockchain Technology (Webcast 2018)

Food Fraud and Traceability in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises On-Demand (Webcast 2018)

The Buzz on Blockchain (Note: this is $100 for non-United Fresh members)

Below are links to helpful resources developed by IFT’s publications and content teams. Please share these through your social and personal networks to help provide greater insights and understanding about this topic.

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