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From Walmart To Grass Roots, 'Blockchain' Tracking Closes Knowledge Gap About Our Foods' Origins

Ann Kenda
An iPhone called up a blockchain of information about this package of chicken from Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative, which is placing QR codes on its packages because it believes its products' origin is of primary importance to its customers.

Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative in Clinton consider so-called locavores and farm-to-table chefs who want assurance their meat is raised organically their target demographic, and they're turning to the emerging information system blockchain technology for its ease and thoroughness of reporting.

Blockchain works by providing a shared digital ledger of trusted information that cannot be edited and is not controlled by any one person.  It promises to provide at the speed of a webpage load a full history of a product, service or idea. 

This same technology is also being tried by the world's largest food retailers like Walmart who are perhaps more concerned with quickly tracking the source of food contamination in the event of an outbreak or health scare.

Grass Roots works with 15 farmers who focus on sustainable farming and food practices. Blockchain will trace Grass Roots' chickens' history from pasture to plate.  The co-op has begun placing QR codes on its chicken packaging that consumers can scan with a smartphone or tablet to call up information about where and how the chickens were raised and harvested.

“Right now, if you go into a grocery store, it is very difficult to understand" the full picture of a product's history, from ingredients or farm animal to ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook food, said Grass Roots general manager Cody Hopkins.

Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative general manager Cody Hopkins holds a package of chicken featuring a QR code that anyone with a smartphone can scan and, with blockchain technology, see a history of the product that goes back to the grazing locale or hen house. The farmers' cooperative plans to use the same information technology for beef and pork in the near future.

Customers may be especially concerned with meat products, he said.

Patrick Moorhead with the Chicago-based data-gatherer Label Insight said the company’s research found that most consumers would prefer more information about their food.

“If I want to know if a particular product is gluten free, or meets my requirements for my Whole 30 diet, that piece of transparency, if it’s not on the label, is valuable to me and would move my purchase decision,” he said.

Moorhead said that preference for more information was obvious among all age and gender groups, but was especially true for young moms who wield billions of dollars in purchasing decision power.

Young chickens at the Falling Sky Farm in Leslie. Every step of their journey from pasture to plate will be recorded with blockchain technology.

Blockchain got its start with the digital currency bitcoins in 2009 and is still primarily associated with the financial industry, but it's spreading to other industries, including agriculture and fashion.  Hopkins was wearing a button-down shirt from  an online clothing retailer that uses blockchain to reveal its pricing  transparency.

"The more that you have total transparency, total visibility, into everywhere that every piece of food has gone, the better able you are to very quickly understand what the source of a problem is." — Brigid McDemott, Vice President for Blockchain Business Development for IBM

Blockchain technology is  being tested by IBM in collaboration with ten major food retailers, including Arkansas-based Walmart and Tyson, for its uses in food safety.  Brigid McDermott, a Vice President for Blockchain Business Development for IBM, said the collaboration was motivated by figures from the World Health Organization that show one in 10 people gets sick every year from food contamination, and some 400,000 people around the world die from food-borne illnesses annually.

“The more that you have total transparency, total visibility, into everywhere that every piece of food has gone, the better able you are to very quickly understand what the source of a problem is,” McDemott said.

Blockchain can track food contamination faster before it sickens more people, but it can also help reduce waste, according to Frank Yiannas, a Walmart vice president for food safety. 

Instead of using a “guilty until proven innocent” response to contamination — removing food from store shelves when there’s even the slightest chance it's fouled — retailers would be able to use blockchain technology to quickly identify and isolate the source of the problem.

Yiannas recently challenged his staff to track a package of sliced mangos that he had grabbed from a store shelf back to its origin.  They were able to do so in six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes.  The time was considered excellent, since information along the food chain is often tracked by various digital systems that may not communicate with each other — or even paper and pen.

When it was time to test blockchain, it fared much better.

“It was 2.2 seconds,” said Yiannas.

McDermott said blockchain is still in its early days, but she believes it will continue to spread way beyond the financial industry.

“I think anytime you want to share information and people want to trust where it comes from, blockchain can be useful.  You’re not limited to any particular kind of information,” she said.  She said that information could very well include whether an animal was raised on an organic farm and whether it had a relatively imaginable "farm life."

The turkeys at the Falling Sky Farm in Leslie will be the next to be blockchained. QR codes on packages of turkey meat will facilitate access to information about where and how turkeys were raised and processed.

The Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative is believed to be the first company to use blockchain technology on small-batch meat products, but Hopkins laughed off a question about whether he feels like a tech pioneer.

“We just want to get our story out there,” he said.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

Ann Kenda joined Arkansas Public Media in January 2017 from Sudbury, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Syracuse University and previously worked in public radio, commercial radio and newspaper in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. She focuses on health, justice, education and energy as part of the Arkansas Public Media team. Her stories can be found on the airwaves, and social media.
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