Walmart,, IBM and Tsinghua University National Engineering Laboratory for E-Commerce Technologies are working together to form the Blockchain Food Safety Alliance. The group’s purpose is to enhance food safety, tracking and traceability in China.

Blockchain technology is a distributed digital ledger technology that uses cryptography and timestamps to provide a permanent record of various types of transactions. This technology powers Bitcoin, and the project plans to use it to achieve greater transparency across the food supply chain.

The original four alliance members are working together to create a standards-based method for collecting data concerning the origin, safety and authenticity of food using blockchain technology to provide real-time traceability throughout the supply chain. The goal is to stimulate accountability and give suppliers, regulators and consumers greater transparency into how food is handled from the farm ultimately to the consumers. This transparency has not been an easy proposition due to the complex and fragmented data sharing systems—many of which are paper based and prone to errors.

The four founding alliance members are working with supply chain providers and regulators to develop the standards, solutions and partnerships to enable a broad-based food safety ecosystem in China. IBM will provide its IBM Blockchain Platform and expertise, while Tsinghua University will act as a technical advisor, sharing its expertise in the key technologies and the Chinese food safety ecosystem.

Walmart, instrumental in developing a produce traceability initiative in 2013, works closely with suppliers, regulators, industry partners and the research community around the world. The company has invested heavily in food safety research in China through the Walmart Food Safety and Collaboration Center. The retailer has promoted food safety through its own supplier network, as well as working with JD, which has broad experience in food supply chain management in China. Walmart and JD have been able to leverage JD’s expertise in the application of AI, blockchain, big data and other new technologies designed to protect consumers.

What is Blockchain?

Blockchain is ideally suited to help address food safety and supply chain issues, as it provides a trusted environment for all transactions among growers, suppliers, processors, distributors, retailers, regulators and consumers—any of which can permit access to information regarding the origin and state of food for their transactions.

“There is a real gap in being able to look across the food ecosystem and provide an end-to-end traceability view,” says Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president, IBM Industry Platforms.

Blockchain is an open-source digital technology, which uses a distributed ledger for recording and verifying transactions. The Linux Foundation, to which IBM contributed thousands of lines of its codebase and corresponding intellectual property, has been a major innovator in open-source blockchain technology. The distributed ledger is a permanent, secure tool that makes it easier to create cost-effective business networks without requiring a centralized point of control. With distributed ledgers, virtually anything of value can be tracked and traded. For example, it allows securities to be settled in minutes instead of days.

When IBM was choosing what it wanted to support as an open blockchain standard, the Linux Foundation’s ledger approach made sense to the company.

“We worked with the Linux Foundation and several companies in helping to kick off the Hyperledger Project,” says van Kralingen. “By using blockchain technology, we’re making data immutable. You can’t go back and change it. You can update it, but everybody has to agree to each change. So, you’re giving people back visibility—that confidence, that immutability of the information.”

What kind of traceback improvements can be expected?

“The public information is the pilot we did with Walmart around mangoes earlier,” says van Kralingen.

Using traditional methods to discover the origin of a shipment of mangoes , it took six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes to get that information—and that is among the better traceback results in the industry. When the traceback was run from the blockchain system, it took two seconds, and there was infinite traceability (original producer, every processor and storage facility and the transit steps as well).

For a full-length interview with van Kralingen on blockchain technology, read on Food Engineering’s website, “Exclusive Interview with IBM’s Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president, IBM Industry Platforms.”