Blockchain and traceability of food products
In his doctoral thesis on traceability, Petter Olsen shows how blockchain, the technology behind e.g. the bitcoin currency, can be meaningful in tracing food products.
The traceability of food products, among other things in connection with place of origin and food fraud, has been a focus area for the past 15–20 years.
“If you search online, you’ll see that the interest in food tracing took off around 2000,” says senior scientist Petter Olsen from Nofima, who defended his PhD thesis ‘Traceability of food products in theory and in practice’ at the start of the year.
The thesis serves as a textbook on the theme of traceability and outlines both the theory and the conceptual instrument behind tracing, and what is required to get it implemented in practice.
Joined the food on its journey south
Petter Olsen accompanied a salmon trailer on its journey to southern Europe. The cargo was Norwegian salmon fillets labelled with the place in Norway that the salmon was produced and by whom.
And if that wasn’t enough: The labels specified what kind of feed the fish had received, what vaccines were given and when, how large the salmon was when it was slaughtered, and of course the date this took place.
All of this was printed on a clear, customised label, pasted onto the outside of the box.
At the destination in France, which was a smoked salmon producer, the salmon was unloaded immediately after arrival.
The goods-in workers went around with three blank labels in three different colours. A red label meant Norway, green meant Scotland and the blue one indicated that the salmon came from Ireland.
They also made a note on the labels of the date when the salmon was received; the cargo was then put in a queue, so that the oldest salmon entered the smokehouse first.
In the subsequent production, it was impossible to trace anything except the country of origin and the date of receipt. This was also the only information that the French producer chose to register. This illustrates how information may be lost, even if it is both registered and passed on.
Three major challenges
“The three major challenges for traceability are as follows:
- The producer must have systems in place to register what they do. My thesis outlines how to map the extent of tracing in a company or in a chain, and how to make sure that your registration becomes part of the production line,” explains the senior scientist.
- So that means the information must be passed down the food chain, either in the form of a sticky label or as an electronic message.
- “Thirdly, the distributor must import and integrate the information they receive into their own systems. If the information is not perceived to provide added value, then it will not be used,” he explains. This last point is where the challenges are greatest, and a survey of over 20 companies shows that it is here that most of the information is lost.
A product that is marketed with its own history may be worth more. Consumers are becoming more and more interested in factors such as sustainability, animal welfare, geographic origin and carbon footprint for the food they buy.
Olsen believes there is a great deal of potential in storytelling for food products, exemplified last winter by Rema’s campaign on the chicken sold by their chain.
Still easy to cheat
Unfortunately, it is still relatively easy for the producers to be a little economical with the truth. Olsen explains in his thesis how blockchain technology can help prevent this.
“Blockchain technology is the modern day equivalent of stone tablets. In simple terms, it means that if you register anything when using this technology, it can never be deleted, overwritten or changed.
The technology works well to secure data and values that only exist virtually: contracts, money transfers, ballot papers and so on.
“The problem for the food chain is that it is physical at every stage. Whatever you register with blockchain will be impossible to change. But it is still possible to lie to blockchain. You are still able to refer to horse meat as beef. But unless the link of the chain that comes before you is also committing fraud, because you cannot change something that has already been registered, it is possible to find out that a horse came to be slaughtered and beef was sent out afterwards.
Olsen has been talking a lot about blockchain after the defence of his thesis, even though he only devoted a single page to this theme. But the theme is trendy and expertise on the subject is in demand, especially because the bitcoin currency is growing in popularity. The senior scientist is a conditional optimist when it comes to what this can do about food fraud.
“Blockchain will solve some traceability problems, but not the really big issues.
You can cheat just as much with the information that is entered in blockchain as you would with any other reporting system,” states the Nofima researcher.
(Film in Norwegian language)