Consumers increasingly want their food to be locally sourced and ethically raised, including (and perhaps especially) on Thanksgiving. The market has been eager to respond to that need. This year, Amazon decided that an organic turkey could be the central player on any American’s table tomorrow by making the bird more affordable (especially for Prime members) to pick one up without breaking the bank.
But for some consumers, the knowledge that the turkey was raised up to the standards of organic, that it managed to avoid antibiotics for its lifetime or even that it spent its days roaming free in a pasture before being dinner is not enough.
Cargill Protein found a way to use to the blockchain to help those customers.
This year, as part of a pilot program, every turkey Cargill sells will come with a tracking code powered by blockchain technology. Upon receiving a turkey and scanning that barcode, the buyer can learn all kinds of things about their new poultry acquisition — including information about the farm where it was raised, pictures of the turkey before it was on its way to being dinner and even data about the farmer who raised the turkey.
“Blockchain is one of those technologies that will disrupt in a lot of ways,” Debra Bauler, Cargill Protein’s chief information officer, said in a Shop Talk interview. “There are things that are compelling about it in food: It’s secure, distributed and irrefutable; there’s a lot in it that made sense to play with in the food space.”
And, Bauler said, there’s a lot more potential for blockchain than just giving consumers a chance to get to know their food on a more personal level. For example, the technology helps food manufacturers track their fresh produce from the truck to the market to the customer’s table. Although it’s only a pilot running on a limited number of Cargill’s Honeysuckle White turkeys today, the program could be the future of the food industry.
Food manufacturers see blockchain as an efficient way to track fruits, vegetables and even turkeys from farm to truck to supermarket to table, adding a layer of consumer safety and accountability to the food supply chain.
Notably, Cargill isn’t alone in recognizing blockchain’s usefulness. As of August, IBM announced that it will be working with several major food producers — Dole, Walmart, Tyson and Nestlé, for example — to roll out a blockchain system that makes it easier to find tainted food that makes it into marketplace, and figure out exactly where it came from.
“It’s a bit of a Big Data problem,” Brigid McDermott, IBM’s vice president of Blockchain Business Development, told BuzzFeed News. “You want a complete view of all the foods that are out there.”
The blockchain, she noted, offers the food supply chain a chance at transparency that heretofore has not existed and an ability to target problems much more efficiently when food safety issues arise. And those issues are serious: 400,000 people are killed by food-borne illness every year, and billions of dollars are lost in product recalls in retail.
“There’s a cost to the business of doing recalls of foods that are perfectly fine, but you don’t know until it’s too late,” McDermott said. “Something like that can decimate an entire industry.”
Moreover, Cargill’s Debra Bauler noted, the ability to leverage the blockchain opens up news doors in communication channels between Cargill and their customers — in a way that is fairly seamless and intuitive to access. The project, she explained, has the ability to create a chance for consumers to have a more direct link to the farmers and other producers who actually bring their food to market.
Consumers can read that a product is organic or free-range on its packaging, of course. But, as one farmer stated, the ability to really track the entire story and see the entire lifecycle of the product can “add confidence to the consumer” and let people see “where their birds are coming from, and get them a little more knowledge about how we do things and why.”
So, will it make the Thanksgiving meal taste any better for the participants at the dinner table this year to know where exactly the turkey came from? Probably not — except for perhaps the most dedicated foodie purists.
But, a future in retail where consumers no longer have to hear of vague food recalls — for things like “broccoli” — and then wonder if their fridge contains tainted food?
That could taste pretty delicious to the average grocery shopper.