The bitcoin technology that can prevent food fraud

How DNA and IT are being used to track produce from farm to supermarket.

23 January 2018
image credit: YelenaYemchuk/iStock/Thinkstock

Remember the horrible horse meat scandal? Sure you do, it was the biggest case of food fraud in the UK, where supermarkets were selling beef burgers laced with horse meat.

Professor Chris Elliott, a Northern Ireland-based food security expert, led an independent review of the UK's food system. He identified a problem: the scale and complexity of the global supply chain made it impossible for supermarkets to monitor every step, allowing rogue operators to strike.

On the back of Elliott’s review, Kieran Kelly, a butcher turned entrepreneur, formed Arc-net to address the problem. The company uses blockchain technology – which powers crytocurrencies like bitcoin – to build a trustworthy record of an animal’s life all the way from farm to supermarket shelf.

Each year, food fraud creates a $40bn global headache. So how does this technology aim to tackle the problem?

Chain of foods

Let’s start with blockchain. This is a digital ledger that records transactions, which can be verified across a network of computers. Because no one owns the data and transactions can be independently verified, it is claimed to be tamper-proof.

Kelly uses the technology to identify animals at birth and track them all the way through growth to the production process.

Arc-net works with producers such as Cranswick, the listed pork group, among others, providing data to retailers like the provenance of an animal (precisely what farm), its age and breed, any vet interventions (including antibiotic treatment) and if it was reared outdoors.

But if you think the process sounds time-consuming for farmers, it’s not, says Kelly.

“It is not onerous at all. There is a DNA chip that is contained within the identity tag, and farmers are using a hand-held device to record information at the point of administration, so there is no need to put it on paper. And it’s a case of recording data in as close to real time as possible,” he says.

Arc-net has partnered with PWC, which carries out some of the auditing of the supply chain and uses independent labs to validate the DNA, resulting in confirmation from multiple sources, says Kelly.

A number of high-profile multinationals have already adopted blockchain technology: Walmart, Unilever, Nestlé and Dole announced in August last year that they were teaming up with IBM to monitor their supply chains.

Transparency and trust

While the technology can show whether an animal is outdoor reared or high welfare, even this isn’t enough for shoppers anymore. After fake farming labelling and the 2 Sisters scandal, they want the whole story behind their food.

Recent research backs this up in the eating sector too, with a survey finding tomorrow’s diners will want to discover the date and time an ingredient was picked or caught at the touch of a screen, without speaking to a waiter.

Knowing where their food came from is important to people, says Kelly, but also allows retailers to tell the story behind a brand and connect consumers with farmers and animals, “giving the produce a voice on the local market”.

“People care where their food comes from, and about sustainability and animal welfare. People care about what they are eating, and it’s becoming more and more prevalent,” he says.

“But I think the supply chain has become more complex. There have been a number of weekly articles in the press showing how fragile the supply chain is and how food can be easily adulterated or counterfeited, and you can see the increase in food fraud – for example, mislabelling of products. And it affects consumer confidence. Our objective is to help increase that confidence, to provide a new layer of transparency and trust.”

Consumers are responsible for driving the change in behaviour in retailing, adds Kelly.

“I was asked the question what is innovation, and I say it is answering the question that the future is asking. So consumers are asking for more information, clarity and transparency, and forward-thinking retailers are seeing the demands of consumers change and working with organisations like ourselves to help create transparency and trust.”

Kelly goes so far as to predict that in the future, consumers will walk away if they can’t see and validate information relating to provenance.

In fact, you might say we’re in the middle of a (block)chain reaction.

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