Big steps come in (tiny, tamperproof) blocks: Walmart and its unit Sam’s Club are set to implement a new food safety blockchain solution. The retail giant worked with IBM to develop the new tech, set for implementation with all leafy green veggie suppliers by September 2019.
But why blockchain? Put simply, blockchain technology makes processing goods — like lettuce, for example — traceable, transparent, immediate, and fully digital. Every handler of every vegetable receives a representation node, documenting every step of a piece of produce on its journey from farm to shelf.
Blockchain allows businesses to verify the quality, freshness, and organic ratings of produce quickly and efficiently, making it extremely valuable to big retailers like Walmart as consumers come to expect more and more information on the origins of their food. The advanced technology also comes with some added security. E. coli contamination, for instance? Blockchain can isolate the source with real-time, end-to-end product traceability.
Transmitting Events Via the IBM Food Trust
The digital ledger built by IBM logs real-world activity in the life of a food product based on six standard supply chain events:
This is step one: creation of an object. IBM’s official supply chain example, applesauce, begins with picking apples on a farm. Apples picked, product commissioned.
Decommission signifies the deletion of an object. Perhaps the apples fail to meet quality standards, or a weather event delays loading. If the product leaves the supply chain, it is officially decommissioned.
The process of grouping, collecting, or packaging multiple objects is referred to as “aggregation.” For example, collecting 10 apples, packaging them in a case, and loading them on a truck for delivery completes the aggregation step. In a product lifecycle that includes transformation, the product will be aggregated multiple times.
“Transformation” involves an irreversible change in a product. In IBM’s apple example, the act of the apples being processed into a puree would be logged as a transformation. The apples will never return to their original state, nor can the manufacturer ship apple puree back to the farm to make new apples. Transformation to a product is irreversible.
The opposite of grouping or packaging, disaggregation involves the disassembling of a product from its shipping bundle. This would involve breaking out a pallet of apples to boxes of apples, and then taking apart the boxes of apples to access individual apples.
Disaggregation also includes the step at which a retailer receives a pallet of jars of puree, after which the staff unloads the pallet to cases and finally to shelf-friendly packages for customers.
This event involves methods of observation, such as scanning an item at a store or registering store inventory. Observation in the blockchain marks the official receipt of a product: It arrived!
The Future of Accountability
The Food Trust solution is built using Hyperledger Fabric, an open-source digital ledger technology already popular for supply chain applications. It runs on IBM cloud, and significantly reduces the time it takes to secure access to relevant information. Without tracing via blockchain, it typically took Walmart seven days to trace the source of food. With the blockchain, the same process takes 2.2 seconds.
Walmart will enter its own master data to customize the blockchain system and create a complete index of locations (including farms, warehouses, manufacturers, and shippers), items, and specific lot data. The system creates full accountability — and a new level of security — at every step.
Image credit: Sundry Photography/Shutterstock.com