Since January, the CDC has issued multiple warnings of E. coli contamination causing hundreds of people to become infected across the nation. Of course, countless bags and heads of lettuce have since been pulled off of shelves and destroyed. On November 20, the CDC spoke out but gave no answers to the public on what caused the outbreak: “At this time, no common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand of romaine lettuce has been identified.”
But it’s been more than a month since the first E. coli cases were reported—and there is no culprit. As a result, thousands of grocers and growers are suffering from what might just be a contamination at a single farm. If the government would have utilized the power of blockchain, we might already have an answer.
Blockchain is simply a new, technologically advanced database used for tracking resources and information as they exchange hands. A copy of the database is stored by everyone on the blockchain network, which allows every user to track each item on the network. Each blockchain network can have different parameters for who can join—some are open to anyone, while others require permission from a central authority to join.
Tracking produce on a blockchain could dramatically reduce the time spent tracing contaminated produce back to the source.
Anytime a change is made, every other user is notified and can make a copy of that change on their own computer. With a multitude of copies, no user can make a change to any information on the network that they don’t rightfully own.
Tracking produce on a blockchain could dramatically reduce the time spent tracing contaminated produce back to the source and put a cap on how often industry-wide recalls are even required. If health officials and retailers can pinpoint the exact sources of contamination and pull only the product at risk off the shelves, the danger to the public and the costs to the guiltless producers would be significantly diminished.
Say we use blockchain to track produce from farm to table. A grocer, truckers, distribution centers, packaging facilities, and the farmers could all have accounts on a blockchain network. Picked and packaged produce would be scanned, uploading a record of its location to the blockchain. From there, the lettuce might be trucked to the distribution center, and once it arrives, its location would again be uploaded to the blockchain. The same process would be followed until a grocery store cashier makes the final scan at the register. If a customer reports contamination from a single head of lettuce, they could trace it back to the source, identifying where it was at every step of the process.
Theory's Great, but What about Real Life?
When it comes to agricultural products, there are so many parties involved in the growing, packaging, distributing, and selling of each piece. The time it took to trace the produce back to its farm was reduced from seven days to just 2.2 seconds. Blockchain offers tracking benefits that traditional databases don't. The new technology allows multiple parties to be on the same database without risk of one party controlling all the information. The network is governed by the parameters are set up when it is established, and every user on the network must abide by those parameters. Small farmers and food-giants alike can participate in the network without one overshadowing the other.
That’s why Walmart and other grocers have already put this technology to test—with much success. When Walmart tested the technology with the recall of a batch of mangos, the time it took to trace the produce back to its farm was reduced from seven days to just 2.2 seconds. And major food producers are getting wind of how well this could work. Dole and Nestle, for instance, are set to track their products on the blockchain network at the beginning of the new year.
Moving food from the farm to the table is truly a miracle of the market. The vast majority of the time, the normal process works just fine. Yet, when contamination occurs, the process doesn’t lend itself well to pinpointing the source. It’s time for our food producers to realize that blockchain is the technology that will make sure the foods meant to keep us healthy aren’t the ones putting us at risk.