Blockchain: A miracle or mirage for food safety supply chains?

Although some time has passed, last year’s SQF 2018 Conference in Atlanta, Georgia is still ringing in my mind.

Like many of the attendees and exhibitors I left the conference with a rejuvenated sense of focus and intensity with regards to improving the state of food safety not just here in North America, but around the world.

Over the course of the week, delegates were challenged with focusing on their company’s internal food safety programs and determine ways to improve them, so they could help shape the future of food safety.

This theme recurred throughout the conference in all avenues, and some of the speeches, including those by Dr. Darin Detwiler (our Connect 360° keynote speaker), really drove home the reason why food safety needs to be front and center in the collective mindset of all food manufacturer’s and professionals.

In all, aside from the fact that the SQF Conference was a world-class event, the notion of Safe Quality Food has never been more essential!

The evolution of food safety and changing demands of legislation

During the conference, I was able to sit in the audience to listen and learn, but more importantly I had the opportunity to speak to many Food Safety professionals from around the industry who asked a variation on the same question, ‘How are we going to survive in this changing environment with requirements which are constantly evolving?’

How are we going to survive in this changing environment with requirements which are constantly evolving?

Here in the United States, for instance, there are increased requirements coming from all directions like the Foreign Supplier Verification Program and GFSI requirements to Retailer Technical Requirements.

The fact is, we can no longer accept the “business as usual” attitude and it is incumbent upon us to strengthen our food safety management programs across the board, but especially our Supplier Quality Management programs.

We can no longer accept the “business as usual” attitude

In past blogs we’ve addressed important topics such as What happens when you get it wrong, Facing and controlling cross-contamination in food processing, and even Why supplier approval programs require intelligence.

As food manufacturers, the requirement on us is simple, we need to do better at mitigating the risks which are in the food supply chain.

It is unclear how we can go about doing that without adding significant cost to our products, ultimately leaving food manufacturers with a large bill to pay as they seek bankruptcy protection.

What is clear is that a technological solution is the logical choice.

Simply because a technology appears to be the solution, does not mean that it will be

With that said, running out to purchase the first technology solution you can find is not the answer. A search for one will reveal that there is not a short supply of them.

The caveat being that simply because a technology appears to be the solution, that does not mean that it will.

In fact, you might end up with a bigger hassle than before you started with it.

Blockchain, a false dawn or the new normal?

One such advancement is blockchain technology, which, for all its perceived benefits, the shortcomings and concerns are quite obvious.

Enabling transparency through the whole of the supply chain, while creating a warm and cuddly perception of a safety supply chain, comes at a price.

Enabling transparency through the whole of the supply chain comes at a price

One such price of this is the loss of confidentiality which is so vital to organizations within the supply chain.

My European colleagues would argue that transparency within the supply chain is the accepted way of business but, here in North America, we have yet to allow this concept to fully take root within our systems and way of thinking.

Until we experience a collective shift in how we frame the question of transparency, blockchain will always carry fault.

Until we experience a collective shift in how we frame the question of transparency, blockchain will always carry fault

If stakeholders hold their cards close to their chest, it will be not be possible to get a true overview of the supply chain, essentially rendering it a Sisyphean struggle where we will forever be battling uphill against insurmountable forces.

If you consider yourself to be a food safety expert, and yet you struggle to understand what blockchain actually is – you are not alone.

Up to this point I have not been able to find an expert who has been able to articulate the pragmatism of how blockchain can be applicable within the food supply chain and used on a daily basis without being susceptible to problems.

I’ve researched this topic ad nauseum, yet, despite some excellent guides, I have yet to find a definitive answer aside from the value (and need) for this with regards to cryptocurrency.

Does that mean then that blockchain is simply a conceptual idea that cannot be related to the food supply chain?

There have been test runs of this technology using products with fairly simple supply chains, however, it is apparent that products with more complex supply chains will be problematic.

It is apparent that products with more complex supply chains will be problematic

After all, it seems as though every link in the supply chain is required to participate or the blockchain is broken.

This can mean that for these products with complex chains, it will become increasingly difficult to obtain 100% participation and buy-in from all avenues in order for it be an effective method of traceability.

Attainable Solutions for Supplier Management

Blockchain technology sounds great in principle, but when we start to dissect it we find that when it is applied to food distribution, it runs the risk of seeming like a smoke and mirrors trick.

When we start to dissect [blockchain] it runs the risk of seeming like a smoke and mirrors trick

Once the first few “Blockchain certified” products are recalled from the store shelf, its seemingly unavoidable shortcomings are only going to reduce consumer confidence.

In a discussion I had with a colleague, Blockchain was essentially likened to a safety restraint in a vehicle.

It’s great that things like airbags exist and injuries are undoubtedly reduced when safety restraints are properly used, but safety restraints won’t stop an accident from happening in the first place, and that’s where the solution really lies!

Given this assumption, we here at Safefood 360° understand the need for improved visibility into your supply chain, but we also understand that identifying the hazards and mitigating the risks are essential to reducing the risks and increasing the safety of your products.

While we aren’t taking the position of being vocal critics of Blockchain, we want to look past the “band aid on a gaping wound” mindset and focus on ways that will actually assist food manufacturers to maintain the viability of their business while meeting the need of improving Supplier Quality Management.

In the coming months we will be introducing several tools within our software which will enable our clients to not only meet the requirements but surpass them and truly be leaders in the industry.

Keep an eye out for future announcements highlighting these enhancements and updates, and if you would like to request a demo please don’t hesitate to contact us!

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