Even in the U.S. an exhaustive track and trace system, which is available to all participants—including small producers and farms—and additional members in the supply chain, right up to the consumer, has been elusive. The FDA, in its recent proposed rule, “Requirements for Additional Traceability Records for Certain Foods,” is a good starting point in defining what kind of data needs to be kept and where new data should originate, but it doesn’t get to specifics in implementation.

While there have been many successful attempts in establishing track-and-trace systems, many have relied upon private blockchain technology and/or use proprietary databases, which not only make compatibility an issue, but can keep smaller producers and distributors out of the picture unless they’re willing to invest in an entry point to the technology.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo and Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) have proposed a system design with decentralized and concatenated features, which aims to provide full transparency from farm to table in food supply chains and meets the needs of small farms, boutique producers and industrial growers.

The researchers contend that while official food certification systems exist in several countries, many experts say the financial cost of implementation and maintenance labor costs are impractical for small-scale producers. Existing certification systems can also be exploited by unscrupulous sellers who fake certificates or logos of authenticity for premium products, like Japanese wagyu beef and Italian Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, or for environmentally ethical products, like dolphin-safe tuna.

“Our motivation was to design a food tracking system that is cheap and user-friendly for smallholder farmers, convenient for consumers, and can prevent food fraud,” says Kaiyuan Lin, a third-year doctoral student at the University of Tokyo and first author of the research study published in Nature Food. (See link at the bottom for cited paper.)

How it works

The researchers’ food tracking system begins with the harvest of any ingredient, for example, rice on a family farm. The farmer opens the app on a mobile phone, enters details about the amount and type of rice, then creates and prints a QR code to attach to the bags of rice. A truck driver then scans the QR code and enters details into the app about where, when, and how the rice was transported to the market. A vendor or distributor buys the rice, scans the QR code to register that the rice is now in their possession, and enters details about where and how the rice is stored before resale. Eventually, the distributor/vendor might sell some rice directly to consumers or other manufacturers who can scan the QR code and know where the rice originated.

“My mission is to make sure the system is not lying to you,” says Lin. “Data are recorded in our digital system only when transactions happen person-to-person in the real, physical world, so there can be no fraud.”

If an imposter registered counterfeit QR codes to dupe consumers, farmers would notice that their alleged harvest size suddenly duplicated itself in the app. Farmers can also choose to receive updates from the app about where, when, and in what form their harvest eventually reaches consumers.

Like object-oriented programming using “parent” and “child” concepts, the app can turn a long list of ingredients into a single QR code, which contains all the information on the ingredients, based on each component’s QR code. Likewise, a manufacturer making meal kits, can further create a QR code, which then contains all ingredients’ QR codes.

The concept is, according to Lin, to get away from barcodes, which are often static in nature and don’t convey all the details in a product. The app was designed with open source software and a fully decentralized (peer-to-peer or multi-master) database, meaning that changes are not controlled by a centralized server. Data storage is spread out among every user’s phone or computer, so there is no central server to hack, providing consumers with even more peace of mind. Researchers hope the decentralized aspect of the app will further contribute to democratizing food systems.

Exclusive interview with Kaiyuan Lin

FE: In terms of the way the system works, it sounds like it might satisfy some of the needs of the U.S. FDA’s proposed FSMA rule for food traceability. Did this proposed FSMA rule inspire the development of your system?

Kaiyuan Lin: Actually, one of the research goals is to fulfill the need for comprehensive traceability, which is extremely hard to realize nowadays. Even a simple prepared fish product can contain sugar, oil, salt etc., which comes from, maybe, all around the world. A big company might have the ability to deal with this level of traceability, however, most of the small and medium enterprises cannot. I really hope this system can contribute to the tracing (from beginning-to-end) of all ingredients, which are imported into a country.

FE: The method you use to record and distribute data among those peers who have access to the data sounds like a blockchain. Is it a blockchain-enabled architecture?

Lin: One of our concepts is “decentralization,” which might be taken as blockchain. However, due to our research, we feel blockchain is not suitable for the food industry (it works better for banking).

The reason why we apply “decentralization” is we don’t want all data to be controlled by a single company or party. The best way for preventing food fraud is transparency and open access. Anyone can access the data; it’s real time and immutable. Data do not belong to servers, but is randomly distributed. We believe a system should not require the high computing power, but be kept simple and straightforward.

Additionally, we did some interviews and fieldwork and found that all blockchains used by food companies tend to be private or proprietary, which is not the original concept of a blockchain. Some companies, especially in Asia, are not even using a blockchain; it’s merely a centralized database design.

FE: Does the system have cybersecurity built into it?

Lin: Yes. Apart from “cyber,” in terms of tamper resistant, we use “the power in the real world” to prevent tampering.

That is, if the cosigner and cosignee didn’t physically meet, the database won’t generate the record of transaction.

This requirement won’t cause an additional workload, because food is a physical thing; you always need to transport it. Also, our system can automatically record the transfer of food and record the in real time—and show where the product is.

FE: Would this system be compatible with—or scale to—distributors that may be supplying grains, commodities or produce to larger food companies?

Lin: Yes, it’s for multiple scales of production. If you are a super large food producer, you need to understand clearly where your product eventually goes. For example, you sell it to the export company, but that’s not the end. That company might transport products to other states or countries. Then when any food safety problem occurs, you can immediately know which batch and/or range of products in the supply chain is affected. I believe rapid reaction and end-to-end tracking and tracing are also what FSMA is looking for.

FE: Are you looking for commercial partners to realize this system?

Lin: Yes, so far we already received some collaboration contacts, but haven’t decided yet.

Further, I believe that understanding the origin of food is a basic human right. If the consumer wants to know, they should be able to. I deeply hope the system can be realized and brought to the national level for establishing good health and well-being.

FE: What are your plans for the future?

Lin: We are working on the next research about matching demands and supplies in food industries. This is the essential part to incorporate with traceability to realize the real sustainable future.

I hope the studies and designs can not only stay in research, but also apply to commercial markets. We are open to any potential collaboration opportunities.

More information

For more information on the research, the  paper, “Mobile-based traceability system for sustainable food supply networks,”  can be found at nature food. You can contact Kaiyuan Lin via email at rgpstu15@kmd.keio.ac.jp or Catlin Devor, project senior specialist, science communication, at the University of Tokyo at caitlin.devor@mail.u-tokyo.ac.jp or via phone at +81-080-9707-8178.