Will blockchain technology make food safer in the U.K.?

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The U.K.’s Food Standard Agency completed its first successful blockchain pilot this month, with plans to expand the test in August.

In this first U.K.-based food-safety pilot that applies blockchain technology, data was transferred from an animal processing plant to the FSA, keeping the regulatory body informed on all the food processed at the facility. Next month, farmers will be able to record data about individual animals onto the blockchain.

Being able to identify and prevent food emergencies currently hinges on inspectors visiting food collection and processing plants before collecting, analyzing and communicating data across disparate channels. In urgent cases, disseminating accurate information quickly is key: consider when a unsafe food item must be quickly removed from retail shelves to limit harm.

Like other nations, the U.K. has of course had to contend with a number of nasty food crises in the last decades. The biggest disaster was the 1990s Mad Cow disease crisis, which saw hundreds of people killed, millions of U.K. cattle slaughtered and an EU ban of British beef exports for 10 years.

There was also the 2013 horse meat scandal where foods were found to contain undeclared or improperly declared horse meat — as much as 100% of the meat content in some products. And remember the South Wales butcher who was jailed in 2007 for supplying contaminated meat to 44 Welsh schools, causing hundreds of kids to fall ill and even killing a 5-year-old? And just this month, various frozen vegetable products were recalled from supermarkets in the U.K. due to possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.

One global problem in the food industry is traceability. The industry requires enormously complex food supply chains to keep the world’s food markets stocked, from farmers and transporters to processing plants and retailers. With the global food supply chain now so complex, it is often difficult to verify food producers and retailers, harming food provenance and food safety.

And this is where applying blockchain technology — or "digital distributed ledgers" according to UK Government Office for Science — can put to use powerful data powers, all in the name of mitigating against unsafe or untraceable food items. For example, the basic blockchain approach can be tweaked to incorporate rules, smart contracts, digital signatures and an array of other new tools, on top of its existing properties of recording and securing an enormous range of transactions.

The hope is that new technologies, like digital distributed ledgers, will improve food system information and control. If the FSA manages it, there are a lot of wins for the U.K. Retailers would have increased trust in the supply chain. The FSA would gain as-yet unseen visibility and control to better ensure food safety and availability. And U.K.-based consumers would benefit from less food-related illnesses or emergencies.

The food industry is of course not the only one foraging into the blockchain tech. Retail, finance, health care, manufacturing and education — in fact, any industry that relies on trust and supply chains to function would be wise to investigate the huge potential of blockchain technologies.

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