Why Walmart’s blockchain initiative is a step in the right direction
In September 2018, Walmart set a hard deadline for their leafy green vegetable suppliers to overhaul their traceability practices.
The world’s largest retailer gave their suppliers less than 12 months to adopt a new end-to-end blockchain solution, specifically, a platform they had developed in partnership with IBM.
This announcement is significant, as it could herald a new era of food traceability standards. Following a recent E.coli outbreak, regulators seem keen to leverage this new technology to improve food safety standards by making traceability quicker and more efficient.
What does this mean for the global fresh produce business?
Analysts are predicting that Walmart’s new blockchain requirement will have ramifications for fresh produce businesses all over the world.
Currently, every business has a requirement to conform to an approach nicknamed ‘one-step-up and one-step-back’. In short, this means every business in the supply chain must have a written record of their immediate suppliers and buyers. In Europe, this has been the standard since 2002.
Blockchain technology, popularised by the rise (and crash) of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, could completely change the way fresh produce approaches traceability. Very simply, a blockchain is a distributed digital ledger, a decentralised set of records shared across a supply chain. It’s encrypted, so it’s secure yet easily accessible and incredibly accurate, as every new data entry is updated across the entire ‘chain’.
Quick and easy traceability
In the event of an outbreak, officials currently need to audit every business in the supply chain to begin to locate a source. The need for greater speed was highlighted by the recent E.coli outbreak in romaine lettuce, which coincidentally occurred a few weeks after this announcement was made. It took the best part of three months to locate three possible sources, taking produce off the shelves for months before business returned to normal.
In an initial pilot of Walmart & IBM’s blockchain technology, a store to farm traceability audit took just 2.2 seconds. Under current traceability practices, the audit took significantly longer – six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes.
Traceability enhanced with blockchain technology will help government agencies identify the sources of foodborne disease outbreaks, leading to more effective recalls in less time. It’s these benefits that will help fresh produce companies enhance their reputations, take better steps to prevent foodborne disease, all while saving time and reducing stress.
More data, more insights, better operational decision making
The potential benefits of blockchain extend beyond traceability, though. The centralised records could be leveraged by fresh produce companies to identify stock movement, allowing them to forecast and plan ahead more effectively. In volatile times, the benefit of transparency could help reduce waste and stay more profitable by focusing on the stock that’s moving quickest.
It could also go some way to improving the cash flow situations for businesses further up the supply chain. Some blockchains utilise a feature called ‘smart contracts’, which, when the conditions of a contract have been fulfilled, a follow-up action could occur. So that means the moment a buyer accepts a delivery, a transaction could be made immediately.
Blockchain in the age of volatility
Blockchain technology promises to improve traceability while reducing the time and work needed to comply with new requirements. In an instant, government agencies can find the source of an outbreak, without the need for weeks long investigations.
Increased visibility and more precise data aid supply chain surveillance by spotlighting produce at each link in the chain; this will protect fresh food suppliers, helping them to maintain pricing integrity, uphold contractual terms and limit food fraud.
Repeated food-borne outbreaks, such as the E.coli incident last year, have diminished confidence in the industry’s capacity to ensure safe produce. Walmart’s adoption will establish enhanced traceability and transparency, helping to reinstate trust in what is an increasingly volatile market.