Is Blockchain The Future of Chicken?

Bitcoin took a dive this week. While it may not be the surefire investment strategy some hoped for, blockchain may still pay off in a different way: shaping the future of food.

Blockchain could be the key to creating a transparent food supply. Thanks to blockchain, you may be able to to trace your chicken dinner from egg to farm to processor and distributor and all the way to your plate.

“Blockbird’s: The World’s Most Transparent Chicken” was presented at this January’s NASFT Specialty Food Show in San Francisco by the food futurist think tank Future Market.

On their website, Future Market explains how technology could give you instantaneous access to the history of your chicken.

“The chicken package label is made of a flexible e-ink touchscreen that the customer can navigate on pack data with their fingers,” Future Market writes. Chicken containers are disposable, but the flexible touchscreen is returned to the grocery store (similar to bottle return) for a deposit refund.”

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Implementing Blockbird’s on a full scale might be decades away, but the roots of the idea are well in the works. Mike Lee, who runs Alpha Food Labs and its Future Market, says the idea for the traceable chicken concept product came from a pilot blockchain project by IBM and Walmart, the nation’s largest food retailer. This project traces pork production and processing in China where there is more food fraud.

Instead of error-prone paper record-keeping, or systems that don’t speak to each other, Blockchain creates a central methodology that captures data from each segment of the food system, creating a traceable chain of information to protect consumers and companies from mislabeled food, spoiled food, food waste and disease outbreak.

American farmers, processors and distributors are already required to keep detailed records. Blockchain technology would add to that.

“It opens up the possibility for the types of data you can collect, and has a built-in audit system,” Lee says.

Unlike Bitcoin, Blockchain is easy to understand. It provides a digital record linking information on a virtual ledger, one that users can only add to, never delete or alter.

According to Brigid McDermott, vice president of Blockchain Business Development at IBM, “What blockchain does is provide a trust system of record between disparate companies.”

Using Blockchain technology, the great tainted-romaine crisis of 2018 could have been shut down in a matter of hours, rather than days, preventing damage and losses in the lettuce industry. In one blockchain experiment at Walmart, the company was able to track the shipping history of two mangoes in two seconds. Via conventional record-keeping, the same process took 6 days, 18 hours and 26 minutes.

“Blockchain will not only give us the ability to track where food came from, but how it was produced,” Frank Yiannas, Vice President of Food safety at Walmart explains in a promotional video. “Was it produced safely? Was it produced responsibly? Was it sustainably grown? How many days of shelf-life are left on that product?” “We don’t believe traceability is the goal. We believe that transparency is the ultimate goal.”

Tyson, Procter & Gamble and other companies are exploring ways to use the technology to streamline record-keeping for their supply chains as well.

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Trust and transparency are laudable goals, but the system has potential drawbacks—like compromising privacy of trade secrets, compliance and the question of who is going to pay for it or control it.

With all the transactions in the field and on the ground, there are millions of bushels of transactions in the cloud. Who will own the server real estate where it is all happening? Amazon dominates the server business and has already gobbled up Whole Foods. Maybe digital control of the world’s food supply could be next.

Will this be another barrier to entry set up by large food retailers to further marginalize small producers? Or, will it foster a new crop of tech-savvy sustainable growers?

Seven years ago, Portlandia’s first episode showed obsessive foodies on a quest to discover if their dinner was happy visiting the farm where the chicken once roamed free. As the show completes its final season, we are on our way to being able to trace a meal’s history by reading a QR code with a cell phone in seconds, right from the table.