Cargill is a big name in turkeys in the United States: when Americans sit down for Thanksgiving dinner later this week, there’s approximately a one-in-four chance they will be digging into a Cargill bird. The Minnesota-based firm is a an old-school kind of company; founded in 1865, it sells a pretty old-school product, as Americans have been eating turkey on Thanksgiving Day since the 1800s.
But just because a firm is old-school doesn’t mean it also can’t be cutting-edge — even if what it’s selling is turkey. And so last year Cargill rolled out a first-of-its kind plan to put turkeys on the blockchain. Cargill’s birds came equipped with a tracking code powered by blockchain technology.
Upon receiving a turkey and scanning its barcode, the buyer was able to learn all kinds of things about the turkey — 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.”
The program was enough of a success that this year Cargill is expanding it, and it will be easier to put your hands on a blockchain turkey at Jewel-Osco and Walmart stores nationwide. Some 3,500 retail locations nationwide will have the traceable turkeys on offer, according to Cargill. All in, around 200,000 of Cargill’s Honeysuckle White brand turkeys have codes on their packaging that consumers can use — via text message or on the Honeysuckle White website — to learn more about the complete history of the bird they are about to roast.
Out of the 700 farms with which Cargill contracts, 70 farms in Missouri and Texas are participating.
The goal, according to Bauler, is to keep current with customer wants and needs for a more local and farm-to-table dining experience and a more personal relationship with their food. Particularly because Cargill is looking to add value without adding to cost. About a third of all Honeysuckle White fresh turkeys are traceable this year — a big jump from last year’s 5 percent. Those turkeys cost exactly the same as the the two-thirds that are not traceable.
And the program, according to Cargill, is likely to expand as it was not only popular with consumers, who enjoyed a chance to learn more about their birds, but with farmers, who liked having the chance to strike “an emotional cord” with the people who would eat their birds. And though consumers don’t tend to want in-depth knowledge on the life and death of their Thanksgiving main dish, they do have an interest in knowing the bird was “raised well” according to Kassie Long, brand manager for Honeysuckle White.
“Consumers want to know that the people who are raising it are good people,” Long said.
Blockchain has in recent months become an increasingly magnetic force, particularly for those who work in the food supply chain. The ability to direct upload information about a product en route to shelves into a virtual ledger than can be altered has gained a lot of traction as a possible solution for traceability issues in the food industry — as well as a potential solutions for common troubles like mislabeling and counterfeiting.
There are, however, those who are skeptical that blockchain as a tool to trace food supply will ever become widespread: the concept is unfamiliar and unusual, the costs associated with it are too high and it is not known if consumers are actually that interested in the data that is offered up.
“A lot of consumers in surveys say they are interested in traceability but it doesn’t translate to, ‘I need this product to be traceable or I won’t buy it,’” Euromonitor research analyst Dewey Warner told the Chicago Tribune. It might have a future as a niche market — much like organics did — starting very small and expanding out as it became more familiar and affordable.
Others, however, noted that the project is a step forward, and that greater traceability in to food supply chain will lead to better outcomes for all, from consumers to merchants and suppliers.
And a Thanksgiving turkey — the traditional centerpiece of the annual dinner that people care about perhaps more than any other meal — might be a good place to let shoppers take an up-close-and-personal look at their buy. It might just make that unfamiliar concept a bit more familiar.