The GFSI Conference brings together over 1,000 like-minded execs every year to talk food safety. This year, front of everyone’s minds is how we can best use technology innovation to advance the cause. Many companies in our sector are investing significant amounts of resources into understanding how new technologies can be applied to manage risk better and I would not mind betting that the word on everyone’s lip’s this year is blockchain. Somehow it has become over-hyped as the ultimate solution to food fraud, provenance and many other ills of the food safety world, just as people once said that dot.com companies were going to make everyone get rich quick (never mind what the product or the business plan) or like people saying that digitisation is the answer to their business problems. My point is that blockchain in itself is not a magic bullet and is not going to solve world problems, but it can be a vital part of many risk management solutions. Now is the time for our sector to give in-depth consideration to how we can really use blockchain to improve food safety. And by that I don’t just mean improving monitoring or validating existing records, but helping those who are responsible for food safety in their businesses to function better, by bringing efficiency, simplification and transparency to the process.
One of the sectors most challenged is agriculture. We work directly with over 12,000 livestock farmers across the UK and this gives us unprecedented insight into the issues they face. A significant amount of regulation, paperwork and admin associated with delivering a product to the consumer is accrued on its journey from farm to retailer. To my mind, there has to be a better way to do things and actually the government agrees, if you read Defra’s Farm Inspection & Regulation Review report.
However, dealing with compliance is not agriculture’s biggest challenge right now. Many farms are just about surviving, with smaller ones particularly under pressure. Brexit is just around the corner bringing uncertainty about all our futures, but for some farmers the loss of established markets could be fatal. The government and trade bodies are grappling with how to make the agri-processing industry more competitive and differentiated on the world stage and exploit the fantastic story that our produce has to tell in terms of its quality, production methods and high standards of animal welfare. This, unfortunately, is one of the many problems that blockchain alone cannot solve – but it can be a vital part of the solution.
So, blockchain is a tool, not an end in itself. The way we look at it in NSF is that it is a secure and efficient way to lock down and share data, but it is the data that is captured and how it can best be used that is of central interest to many people. Some criticism has been aimed at the blockchain system on the basis of ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ and this is undoubtedly true. If records are falsified before they are locked into the blockchain, they will go through the supply chain undetected.
At NSF we have been working on a solution that addresses multiple compliance concerns in the livestock sector and has the capability of adding value to all actors in the supply chain by evidencing the authenticity and provenance of meat products. Initially trialled with pork and beef farmers the technology uniquely records the journey of an animal from birth through to the supermarket shelf and makes that data available to the consumer. I look forward to sharing our progress with fellow members of the GFSI community and to receiving your valuable feedback and inputs.
This post was written and contributed by:
NSF International’s Food Services, UK