What role might technologies such as blockchain play in ensuring food safety and tackling food fraud?

Posted: 1 June 2017 | | No comments yet

By definition Industry 4.0 is the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things and cloud computing. Industrial applications require an increasing degree of trust and privacy protection. Proof of existence, of origination or of a consistent track record gain importance. Trusting the timestamps and the integrity of sensor data can be a crucial requirement. In this capacity blockchain can be used in combination with Industry 4.0 to create in effect a ‘smart factory’. Expansion and utilisation of this new tech within the food industry will be a powerful tool against food fraud.

smart tech food fraud

Contamination, be it deliberate or accidental, of food produce has extremely significant implications in the 21st Century.

Following the 2013 horsemeat scandal that tore across Europe, consumer trust in the food industry plummeted. Prior to the scandal it is thought that 90 percent of the consumer population felt confident when purchasing food at the supermarket. Now, though, the number has dropped to seven in 10.

Further to this, according to a report from the Guardian, 38 percent of supermarket foods were found to be mislabelled or fraudulent, which inevitably tarnishes the retailer’s reputation. In essence, food integrity took a big hit following the continent-wide scandal.

What was the horsemeat scandal?

The 2013 horsemeat scandal was a scandal in Europe in which foods advertised as containing beef were found to contain undeclared or improperly declared horsemeat – as much as 100 percent of the meat content in some cases such as Findus’ Lasagna to name one example. The issue came to public attention in January 2013, when it was reported that horse DNA had been discovered in frozen beefburgers sold in several UK supermarkets. It must be noted that the issue is not that horsemeat is harmful to health as it is eaten in many countries. It is the fraudulent practice and mislabelling that provoked outrage. The horsemeat scandal was ultimately a polemic around trust and analysis at the time stated that 23 out of 27 samples of beef burgers also contained pig DNA. This was particularly shocking for the Muslim and Jewish communities.

This major breakdown in the traceability of the food supply chain presented the risk that more harmful ingredients could have been included as well.

The horsemeat scandal embodied food fraud as a concept and was an example of the conscious misleading of consumers and fundamental compromise of transparency and food safety. This is not acceptable but continues to occur across Europe and the world.

A study by PwC and Safe and Secure Approaches in Field Environments (SSAFE) found that food fraud is estimated to be a $40 billion problem per annum. In addition, it is alleged that in the UK alone, fraud costs the food and drink industry up to £11 billion per year according to research by PKF Littlejohn. By tackling fraud, the food and drink industry could therefore boost profits by £4.48 billion. Similar statistics can be proportionally scaled up for the US market in terms of how much fraud costs the economy.

Bitcoin magazine recently published an article entitled ‘Burgers on the blockchain’ arguing that tech and in particular blockchain might have a role to play in ensuring the safety of our food.

In essence, blockchain’s relevance to the food industry is as a guarantor of openness and transparency and a means of tracing transactions from the very first to the last. This principle could and should, many argue, be applied to food to ensure that the consumer can track their food through the supply chain and know exactly where its been to avoid future scandal. 

The theory

One theoretical application might be through the use of DNA markers.

Analysis of a DNA sample from an animal, let’s say beef as this was the main issue specifically in the horsemeat scandal, is able to provide key markers: its country of origin for example. A digital copy of that DNA can then be attached to every item or product an company creates, which brings traceability to the item level, rather than to an entire batch. As a result, there is the ability to track each item throughout the supply chain.

Subsequently, “the digital marker can then be cross-checked with the blockchain record to ensure the product’s authenticity throughout its life cycle. The process allows producers to create a chain of custody,” as explained by Bitcoin Magazine in their case study of arc-net. 

“Once the food lands on a retailer’s shelf, consumers can scan a QR code on the food package with their mobile phones to receive food safety information about the product, including details as to what is in the package and its origination.”

Sean Crossey, associate digital marketing analyst at arc-net then told the magazine:

“This process helps organisations prevent fraud while delivering total traceability, cutting the costs of product recalls and reducing process inefficiencies,” said Crossey. “It ensures that retailers can guarantee the authenticity of the food that reaches their shelves.”

So this, we hope, has helped to expose the enormous potential of blockchain and the digital for ensuring food supply chain transparency and traceability as well as tacking the significant challenge of food fraud in the 21st Century. 

What is actually meant by smart manufacturing?

We read many articles discussing Industry 4.0 (I4.0) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) and defining these concepts can be difficult, however what these and other similar concepts clearly introduce is a ‘forward thinking’ mind-set and this has in some cases already led to ‘smart manufacturing’, where intelligent machines, systems and networks are capable of independently exchanging and responding to information to manage industrial production processes.

Smart manufacturing looks at the complete holistic view from customer demand and order processing, control of raw materials and ingredients to flexible and efficient plant production, whilst minimising waste, energy usage and downtime.

In fact there are instances, across many industry sectors where new manufacturing plants, or new production facilities in existing plants, have been designed from the word go to deliver a smart manufacturing concept.

However, in many cases the luxury of new plant is not the reality and more likely the current plant will need to be upgraded to meet the requirements and enjoy the benefits of the smart manufacturing concept.

‘Smart’ in its simplest form is about gathering data from the manufacturing process, turning that data into information and then acting on that information. You could say that what is needed is ‘intelligent data’ from the plant in order to make decisions that improve productivity and efficiency while minimising waste, energy usage and downtime. The next crucial step of course is connecting various plant assets and systems together.

Smart manufacturing is about having a reliable, efficient plant that can adapt swiftly and reduce errors and downtime and if manufacturers do not invest and get on-board with this concept they are highly likely to be left behind by any of their competitors that are embracing this change.

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