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devise on a smartphone used to analyze food samples Photos by Willie Vogt
CHECKING SAMPLES: This simple device that slides onto a smartphone contains a slot in the back, where a sample vial of a product can be placed for analysis. The graph on the phone shows the info on the original sample (top) and a second sample. Note the difference.

Digging into the option for tracking food

IBM is working with blockchain technology in its Food Trust program, designed to link growers to consumers.

The dinner was delicious, from specially prepared scallops to a carrot cake prepared in the tres leches manner of a Mexican dessert, and diners enjoyed the event. A key to the event is that in every course, there was at least one food item that could be directly traced back to the producer using blockchain technology.

A blockchain is an unalterable ledger that can be linked to a unit of almost any item; and with that “link,” it’s possible to trace back the item to its origin — no matter how many places it passes through to get to the consumer. In the case of food, a growing demand from consumers to know where items originate and how they arrived may drive this technology forward.

The special dinner, prepared by celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez, was hosted by IBM during CES.

Aaron Sanchez and others cooking and promoting IBM Food Trust
ENLISTING HELP: Aarón Sánchez (center) promotes the IBM Food Trust, which is a program promoting blockchain technology for food traceability. This celebrity chef is telling the story about how the tech helps ensure that what you buy can be traced easily.

IBM’s Food Trust program works to assure available, reliable data about food, from farm to table. For example, Farmer Connect is a blockchain-based program linking coffee growers to the market, and it’s providing assurance to buyers that they’re getting sustainably raised coffee when they buy from those growers.

What does blockchain have to do with a corn, soybean or wheat grower moving a fungible commodity from field to storage to elevator? Not much yet; but as this technology evolves, and its use becomes more accepted, this may change.

“It’s about food safety,” says Suzanne Livingston, director, IBM Food Trust. “We’re providing information into an increasingly efficient supply chain.” She points to the fact that one-third of food produced in the world is wasted. Knowing more about that food as it moves through the distribution channel could help cut down on that.

For example, knowing that a food item was transported properly, held at the right temperature through its transit, and delivered in quality condition provides an assurance to the buyer. Being able to track all those stages with a blockchain adds confidence that what the seller is saying about that food is true.

Livingston notes that this process is still evolving, and there are challenges in that channel tracking; but with cheaper sensors and improved data collection, that time is coming.

Boosting market share

Blockchain tech could help a smaller supplier gain a foothold in a competitive market. On the dinner table at the event were bottles of olive oil. The brand is Terra DeLyssa — and it comes from Tunisia, which is not a country known for olive oil.

Growers in the region agreed to have their product tracked by blockchain for the organic olive oil. With those data for consumers, buyers can be assured they’re getting a specific, quality product from the supplier, and they can track its progress from tree to grocery shelf. In the competitive market for olive oil, the move may open more buyers to Tunisian oil before others.

Yet there’s a question: How do you know that the product you’re tracking is actually the product with the blockchain attached?

Jeff Welser, vice president, research, IBM, demonstrated a device called the Verifier that can check samples to make sure the product you get is the “blockchained” product. “We needed a low-cost solution to this problem,” Welser says. “Cellphone cameras are getting so good, we found we could use that to read a sample and determine its content.”

The Verifier is essentially a pocket spectrometer that uses a cellphone camera to “see” into a sample. An app on the phone, powered by artificial intelligence, can “read” the sample and provide data about its contents in graphic form. If the product you scan differs from the confirmed parameters for the product, you know you have a fake. Welser says the company imaged thousands of samples to teach the software how to read the products. The scanner can “see” into small vials of liquid, but the software-camera combination can also read leather, wood and other flat products, and match readings of those products to standard samples recorded in the system.

Blockchain technology continues to evolve, and someday even grain farmers will be called upon to verify origins of products that go into a food supply system. For specialty crop growers, this technology may become a reality sooner. Tools like the Verifier help improve consumer confidence in the idea of the blockchain.

You can learn more about this technology at IBM Food Trust.

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