Blockchain Technology For Beef

BY KATRINA HUFFSTUTLER AND JILL J. DUNKEL

 

The IBM brand isn’t often associated with the cattle business. But that may change, thanks to the tech giant’s IBM Food Trust and its use of blockchain. That’s just what it sounds like: blocks of information that form a chain, linked via Internet to allow information sharing that is seamless, efficient and secure.

Its primary application is between partners across an industry striving to achieve improved transparency, traceability, sustainability — and ultimately even profitability.

Nigel Gopie, marketing leader for the IBM initiative, told 200 cattlemen at the late-summer Feeding Quality Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, the system offers trust and transparency in places where it either doesn’t exist or could be improved.

“In the food industry, in particular,” Gopie said, “there are  a lot of concerns about food safety, food fraud, sustainability, and others. We believe that, with blockchain, we can bring light to problems that have plagued us for centuries.”

Take food safety, for example. With blockchain, the source of contamination could be pinpointed easily — no more long-lasting scares like the one earlier this year where consumers were told to avoid romaine lettuce  for months.

“With blockchain, we’re able to solve problems that we never could solve before,” Gopie said. The benefits of information sharing works both directions.

“I could learn more about your organization by sharing data, I can learn more about my organization, but also together, we can learn a whole lot more” he said “What we believe in is, the whole is greater than the sum of the  parts.”

While the audience of quality-focused cattlemen was intrigued, many had the same concern, voiced in a question: Is it secure? Gopie assured them it is. “With blockchain, your data belongs to you,” he said. “We believe your data does not belong to the solution, nor does it belong to your transaction partners. And so, your data is held in secure environments and it’s only shared when you want to share it. It’s encrypted and no one can get access to that data unless you permission it.” He added cattlemen have flexibility when it comes to sharing, too.

“You don’t have to  permission all of your data — you can share pieces of data, you can share all of your data, and you can share data with me or your transaction partners one month, but then change that permissioning so we share different data or no data at all the following month,” Gopie said.

And what about liability? Would a rancher or feeder be responsible if E. coli was traced back to his  operation? What would that look like?

Gopie said blockchain is about fact finding, not fault finding. And beyond that, it’s important to remember an outbreak may not be related to time on the  hoof anyway.

“It could’ve been any point during the supply chain, but by having the visibility, you’re able to help figure out where different paths cross, and then you’re able to identify the  problem,” he said. “So, it may not be on a farm at all. However, if it is on your farm, wouldn’t you want to know? Secondly, if it was not on your farm, you’d also want to share that information. You would be able to say, ‘I understand it was Nigel’s farm that had that problem and we’re all there to help and ensure that doesn’t happen again. But also, my stuff is safe.’”

That’s only one part of the equation. In a much bigger sense, blockchain’s application can allow a new and better way for consumers to feel connected to their food from pasture to plate.

“A lot of us folks who live in a city love the idea of understanding where our food comes from, seeing pictures of where our cattle are raised. I think that sort of connection allows us to feel closer with the food that we’re eating,  realize that the men and women who are raising these products really care about them, and it’s the same thing that they would feed their families at home,” Gopie said. “And so, it provides us with a little more trust about the entire system by allowing that connection to take place.”

Acceptance of Blockchain in the Food Industry

Acceptance and widespread use of blockchain in the cattle industry is in the infant stages right now, but the term is something that ranchers should start learning about. Major food manufacturers are taking notice, and Walmart will require blockchain use with certain food products in 2019.

After a food safety scare with romaine lettuce kept customers away from the leafy greens for an extended period of time, the food giant conducted multiple blockchain pilot projects to see if the information chain could reduce the time it takes to identify the source of a food safety outbreak.  The results? Without blockchain, it took six days, 18 hours, and 26 minutes to trace mangoes back to its original farm. With blockchain – 22 seconds.

That caught the retailer’s attention in a big way. During an outbreak of disease or contamination, six days is an eternity. So by this time next year, Walmart and Sam’s Club will ask suppliers of leafy greens like romaine lettuce and spinach to implement food traceability via blockchain technology.

Does that mean super grocers like Walmart will be requesting the beef industry to do the same? It’s hard to say. Tracking leafy greens from the field to the shelf is not as complex as a 1,200 pound steer that takes 18 months to reach the meat case. However as early as 2016, the giant retailer was working with officials in Beijing to track Chinese pork in pilot projects.

Some Wyoming ranchers are banking on consumers’ interest in the history of the meat on their plate, and they’re investing in blockchain technology. Six multi-generational Wyoming ranches have partnered to form BeefChain,™ an effort to use blockchain technology to track cattle from the farm to the plate. These six ranches have tagged almost 1,600 calves that will be marketed as Wyoming Certified Beef in the fall of 2019.

According to Beef- Chain’s website, using blockchain technology has two objectives. First, it brings technology to the  rancher in order to enhance traceability and prove humane handling. Second, it creates an end-to-end supply chain solution dubbed “Rancher to Retail” through Beef- Chain’s investment in feedlot and processing operations. These operations will allow BeefChain to offer exclusive, long-term relationships with buyers across the globe, ultimately offering their certified beef at a  premium.

Several notable individuals are involved in the project, including Wyoming state senator Ogden Driskill and state representative Tyler Lindholm, as well as partnerships with the University of Wyoming and individuals with major food industry experience. Want a closer look? Visit www.beefchain.com

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