Could Blockchain Solve Foodborne Illness Outbreaks?

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By Alaura Valley

Foodborne illness outbreaks are seemingly on the rise. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that annually 48 million consumers get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally, foodborne illness kills around 420,000 each year. One contributing factor to foodborne illness outbreaks are the complexity of the supply chain for produce and other perishable food products.

            Recalls of tainted food products often come slowly. A recent example is a beef recall from JB Tolleson. On October 4, JB Tolleson recalled 6.5 million pounds of beef after 57 salmonella cases in 16 states.  The first reported illness occurred on August 5 and the bulk of the instances happened within the month of August. If the broader food industry had a more efficient way to track where in the supply chain the food was tainted, and what other products it may have come in contact with, it could cut down on this lag time.

Large-scale recalls also have serious financial implications for manufacturers. In 2007, ConAgra recalled all the jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter sold since 2004 because they were exposed to salmonella. ConAgra pleaded guilty and paid $11.2 million dollars in criminal fines and forfeitures. Additionally, ConAgra paid $36 million to 8,810 people in settlements.

Most of the fruit consumed in the US is imported. Logistically, this means your produce goes through many hands in the shipment process before it gets into a local supermarket. As produce is shipped in and around the United States, each step of that process is documented separately.

This disjointed approach to tracking produce shipments is a contributing factor to why foodborne illness outbreaks take so long to get under control. If an E. coli outbreak is documented at one grocery store, it can be a difficult to first, determine where that product came from, and second, determine where else similarly contaminated products could have wound up.

One potential solution is to implement blockchain in the supply chain process. Transparent Path, a Seattle based start-up is looking to take on this challenge. Eric Weaver, Transparent Path’s CEO and Co-Founder shared his vision at the UW Blockchain Expo on October 13. Transparent Path seeks to implement two innovations in supply chains, which together could help reduce foodborne illness outbreaks. First, by implementing blockchain to track supply chain, food retailers could more easily track where individual items originated and where items coming from the same supplier may have ended up. The second possible solution is to monitor products through printed sensors. Printed sensors can track critical metrics like temperature. These innovations would allow a manufacturer to check that the produce in any given delivery truck was kept at the right temperature and, if they find the truck overheated, they can reject that shipment and prevent potential outbreak. This type monitoring system has the potential to prevent instances of foodborne illnesses before they occur.

Some retailers are already working to use blockchain in to their supply chain systems. After recent E. coli outbreaks linked to leafy greens, Walmart has told its leafy green suppliers they must use blockchain to track produce.

Transparent Path sees a future where produce can be blockchain certified, like the USDA Organic certification. This notion raises some interesting legal questions. If a food product is blockchain certified, who is liable if it ends up causing an outbreak?

The answer may rely on what the nature of the certification is. To be able to label packaging with a USDA Organic sticker, producers must get accredited with the USDA. This involves stringent onsite inspections of farms. If a manufacturer is not complying with the criteria, the certification will be revoked and the packaging must be updated to reflect that the product is not USDA Organic.

Until recently, a civil remedy was not available to consumers for breaches of the organic certification. However, a 2015 California Supreme Court case found that the Organic Food Production Act does not preempt civil suits brought under state consumer laws. This issue is not well litigated, but if products start to be blockchain certified, we may see a rise in this type of litigation. One important distinction here however, is that blockchain certification would not be federally regulated like USDA Organic certification.

But federally regulated certifications are not the only labels manufacturers put on their products. Many cosmetic companies label their products as cruelty free. For example PETA, has a cruelty free label which companies can put on their packaging. PETA requires companies to fill out a questionnaire and sign a statement of assurance to become cruelty free certified.

It is currently unclear what kind of liability a blockchain certification would impose on both manufactures and developers of the technology. However, with major retailers, like Walmart, utilizing blockchain in their supply chain systems, this may have a significant impact on how consumer protection and food safety laws look and function.

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