Walmart, IBM Developing a Food Safety Solution

By using blockchain technology, the companies hope to develop a traceable and transparent food safety solution for the entire supply chain.
February 28, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – ArkansasOnline reports that Walmart and IBM are developing a food safety solution, a pilot program that the companies say could have the potential to reinvent the way food is tracked worldwide as it moves through the supply chain from producers, distributors, grocers and eventually to consumers.

Citing the 2006 E. coli outbreak from spinach, which resulted in three deaths across 26 states and hundreds of confirmed illnesses, Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Walmart, called the outbreak the "worse-case example" for food safety. 

"If you had traceability systems, you could do it really quick and know if it was the implicated lot or not," Yiannas said. "By doing it quickly, you could protect consumers. You could certainly protect unaffected products and allow the sale of products that were unaffected."

The news source writes that the new solution Walmart and IBM are working on uses blockchain technology: a digital, distributed ledger used to record transactions securely. The technology has been linked closely to the financial services industry. 

"We've been, what I call, pursuing this holy grail of traceability for over a decade," Yiannas told the news source. "When we came across this blockchain technology we thought, 'This has the potential to really be a disruptive technology and be a solution to facilitate traceability and transparency.'"

Foodborne outbreaks present challenges for retailers, distributors and producers, where time is of the essence to find and track the source of recalled items throughout the entire supply chain. Currently, Yiannas said, records regarding food are generally kept on paper, leaving a complete view of the distribution network difficult to attain. 

The news source writes that with blockchain, the time to find the exact source of the outbreak can happen in minutes instead of days. Annibal Sodero, an assistant professor of supply chain management at the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business, said the implications for food safety are huge.

"You know at what point contamination happened," Sodero told the news source. "You know which pallets, which cases were involved. You will know at which stores and distribution centers. So for traceability it will be a snap, really, to find the source. It's a huge cost to have to pull everything from the stores instead of just pulling that batch that got contaminated."

Walmart and IBM say that the benefits of a digitized food system will also have potential to reach further than traceability. Detailed information could help reduce waste and improve efficiency/lower costs for food delivery.

"Blockchain isn't magic fairy dust," Brigid McDermott, IBM's vice president of blockchain business development told the news source. "But what blockchain does that is truly unique is to create this trusted system of record. You've never before had the ability for an entire ecosystem to look at data and be confident that everybody else is looking at the same data and that everybody else trusted the same set of data."

Walmart and IBM hope to extend their work across the entire food system.

"This isn't IBM and Walmart," McDermott commented. "This needs to be something that the larger ecosystem uses. ... Each retailer has a huge number of farms. Each farm has a huge number of retailers. So you want to make sure that people don't have to use 50, 100 different systems. At the end of the day, this is most useful if everybody is using it."