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Business Commentary Lettuce is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to food traceability

Marcos Da Silva is the Big Data practice lead at Adastra Corp. He uses data and computers to solve meaningful problems in the real world.

Food safety and trust have been top of mind given the recent incidents in the news. The E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce, for example, prompted a panic and crisis in consumer confidence after contaminated product popped up in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick. Meanwhile, earlier this month, the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity released a study finding only one-third of Canadians trust the government to ensure food safety, and only a third indicated farmers/growers were doing ‘"well" when it came to openness and transparency.

I can’t help but think we’re missing the solution to these issues that’s right under our noses. The technology to tackle food safety, waste and consumer trust in the food system exists. Now we need corporate leaders and policy-makers to get on board and support its adoption.

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Consider the complex journey food takes before it reaches our plates. Lettuce, for example, starts with a seed, moves through the growth and harvesting process, then is distributed via several warehouses before it reaches the grocery store. With that many handlers in the process, passing through sometimes multiple countries, it’s no wonder growers have trouble ensuring a product’s quality, and consumers are hesitant to trust its safety.

Now, a technology that was initially invented to serve as the public transaction ledger of the cryptocurrency bitcoin has found an application to increase trust in the food we eat. The buzz around this emerging technology is certainly noisy, thanks to the frenzy surrounding bitcoin. But in the realm of food safety, it has important and real implications for everyday Canadians. With blockchain, all parties involved in a food product’s journey can contribute to a database in a secure, encrypted ledger, accessible by all. It can then be accessed through a bar code that’s attached to the item.

The implications of this for consumers and farmers can’t be understated. If consumers have a better understanding of where their food has been, sentiments about farmers' and growers’ transparency will change. And if food providers can identify the precise machine, plant or warehouse that’s contaminated, it will lead to more targeted recourse and avoid widespread chaos.

Food waste is also an environmental issue that must be addressed. If growers can identify exactly which produce is contaminated, consumers, growers and retailers won’t have to discard massive amounts of food. Food waste already costs the Canadian economy up to $100-billion annually. There’s no need to let this number climb when it can be solved so easily.

There are surely challenges ahead for blockchain adoption in the food system. For example, finding the right way to get barcodes that are permanent but not damaging onto our products. These are tough but not unsolvable issues. Canadian engineers, with support from food safety organizations, must tackle this project to enhance the health and safety of all consumers.

Projects using blockchain in the food system are under way in Canada that could be widely adopted. Toronto-area technology firm Adastra has built a blockchain solution for a local Ontario grower of edible organic plants to track its products, and is integrating it with the grower’s production system. Now it’s time for growers, agricultural organizations and policymakers to take a closer look at blockchain as a solution.

With more food growers, and the explosion of new markets, tracking food products across a complex supply chain is trickier than ever. But plants are just one application of blockchain technology – it can also be used to trace fish, meat and vegetables as they travel to our plates. People should feel safe in the food they eat. And Canadian farmers and growers simply can’t afford further dips in consumer confidence or potential contaminations. We must look to implement the solutions being used right now to preserve the health of the population and the integrity of the food system.

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