IBM and Walmart to boost traceability with blockchain

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock
IBM, Walmart and Tsinghua University are to work together on a 16-week project to improve the way food is tracked, transported and sold to consumers across China.

They will use technology designed to generate transparency and efficiency in supply chain record-keeping.

The partners have worked alongside each other on a variety of projects in the past. One example is the work by IBM and Tsinghua University on Green Horizons to address environmental challenges.

Blockchain provides a record of transactions which are grouped in blocks that cannot be altered.

Food products can be digitally tracked from suppliers to store shelves and consumers.

Alternative to current methods

IBM said it is an alternative to traditional paper tracking and manual inspection systems, which can leave supply chains vulnerable to inaccuracies.

The firm added it could create a new model for food traceability, supply chain transparency and auditability.

"As advocates of promoting greater transparency in the food system for our customers, we look forward to working with IBM and Tsinghua University to explore how this technology might be used as a more effective food traceability solution,"​ said Frank Yiannas, VP, Food Safety at Walmart.

Digital product information such as farm origin details, batch numbers, factory and processing data, expiration dates, storage temperatures and shipping detail are digitally connected to food items and the information is entered into the blockchain at each step of the process.

The information is agreed upon by all members of the business network; once there is a consensus, it becomes a permanent record that can't be altered.

Each piece of information provides data points that could reveal food safety issues with the product.

IBM told us that food safety is a global challenge in the 21st​ century.

"Key to addressing this is ensuring that records are kept that accurately reflect the provenance of each food item and key details such as its shipping route, expiration date, storage temperatures and more. Blockchain can serve as an alternative to traditional paper tracking and manual inspection systems, which can leave supply chains vulnerable to inaccuracies.

"The consensus needed for transactions are just the participants in a handshake - not everyone in the network. This enables transactions to be carried out due to agreed-upon conditions in real time.

"The immutability and trust built into the blockchain helps minimize some of the inaccuracies current supply chain solutions can be vulnerable to."

Technology lagged behind in traceability

Bridget van Kralingen, SVP, Industry Platforms at IBM, said it is experimenting in China given the size and scale of food consumption in the country.

"Advanced technology has reached into so many aspects of modern life but it has lagged in food traceability, and in particular in creating more secure food supply chains.”

Working with transaction security and authentication technology experts from Tsinghua University and Walmart’s knowledge of the supply chain, logistics and food safety, they are using IBM blockchain based on the open source Linux Foundation Hyperledger Project fabric.  

The records created by the blockchain can also help retailers manage shelf-life of products in individual stores and strengthen food authenticity safeguards.

IBM Research – China has two labs, in Beijing and Shanghai and Walmart is establishing its role in food safety efforts.

Tsinghua University will help with primary research and analysis, problem solving and accessing the program’s objectives and help complete a final assessment.

The university will work with Walmart and IBM to help replicate the program by developing technologies to help companies better understand, prevent and manage food safety issues.

IBM Research is already involved in a consortium with Mars, which Bio-Rad joined, to categorize microorganisms and what influences activity in a factory environment.

The Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain was created to combine genomics with informatics to observe microbial communities in food and detect hazards in the supply chain to reduce the risk of contamination.

Related topics: R&D, Track and trace, Data management

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