Potatoes have taken a curious road to popularity. Originally from South America, they were brought to Europe in the 16th century since they appeared to be an easy-to-grow animal feed. Farmers began trying the hardy root vegetable during lean growing seasons when other crops waned and found an ideal, high-carb side dish. French scientist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier is credited with promoting potatoes, and by the early 1800s, cooks throughout France were experimenting with roasted, boiled and especially mashed potatoes.
“Pomme puree” continues to be a popular dish in France and other European countries, with Nestle’s Mousline brand instant mashed potato mix a supermarket best seller. Carrefour, the multi-national Paris-based food retailer and a major seller of Nestle products, saw an opportunity in a joint project with Swiss-based Nestle and the IBM Food Trust: Using blockchain technology to track food sourcing. The first fully tracked Mousline boxes arrived in Carrefour stores in April.
“Our customers have told us they’re interested in where their food comes from,” says Emmanuel Delerm, blockchain project leader for Carrefour. “We were the first to offer this kind of transparency. Ideally, a customer can scan the Quick Response code on a vegetable and find out where it was harvested and when. On a meat product they can see what the animal was fed. It’s truly a revolutionary step.”
While blockchain technology is probably best known as the basis of cyber currencies, food distribution may be one of its most practical uses. Blockchain is a “distributed ledger” database that, among other things, can follow a product through the supply chain in which each participant can make an entry. It allows anyone along the supply chain to see where it started and where it’s been.
Ultimately, it shows the journey a product can take from raw material to finished product. For instance, a chicken dish tracked by blockchain would show whether the chickens were given antibiotics, if the vegetables were grown organically, when and where the dish was prepared, etc. These digitized “certificates” are critical to labeling laws that mandate how products are described.
The level of detail in a scan can point to the GPS coordinates of a farm where the product was harvested, the types of fertilizers and/or pesticides used and even who picked it. Quality control staff along the supply chain sign off on the product’s condition at each place.
Following fresh products like meat, dairy and produce through blockchain, which requires each step taken for the product’s journey from farm to store shelf to be recorded, is one thing. But tracking mass-produced items such as instant potato mix is another — manufacturers typically buy massive amounts of raw produce from farms and distributors and combine them to create product.
“Consumers are looking for accurate information about the food we sell, and blockchain allows us to do that even in packaged, mass-produced items.” — Emmanuel Delerm, Carrefour
Knowing which farm supplied the potatoes that were used in a particular box of Mousline would seem to be impossible. However, customers equipped with a QR scanning app can see information about how the potatoes were grown all the way through how the instant puree was made.
“The fact that we can track this information in depth brings an entirely new dimension to our work,” Delerm says. “Consumers are looking for accurate information about the food we sell, and blockchain allows us to do that even in packaged, mass-produced items. Additionally, when there’s a recall we can quickly determine what’s been affected, where the products are and remove them from the shelves.”
In the cases of contamination, blockchain not only can quickly identify products, it helps protect against waste. “If we know produce from a particular farm harvested over a few dates are having a problem, we can find those and destroy them rather than all the produce from that farm,” Delerm says.
That type of transparency for food retailers is considered critical. “We can see if a distributor is selling us product from a farm that has had problems in the past,” Delerm says. “The retailer — and the consumer — can check the sourcing of products. Everyone will get insights into the food they eat.”
“What we’re seeing today with Carrefour and Nestle will soon be commonplace everywhere,” says Suzanne Livingston, director of the IBM Food Trust. “It’s information that benefits both the consumer and the businesses involved, so it’s a natural fit to introduce people to blockchain technology.”
Nestle, which joined the Food Trust in 2017, had been experimenting with blockchain tracking of its products and was looking for a retail partner. Carrefour had developed a thriving blockchain program covering a selection of private-label items including fresh poultry, vegetables and dairy, with a stated goal of having more than 100 of its products traceable through blockchain by 2022. The company was approached by the IBM Food Trust last October about connecting with Nestle, and quickly signed up.
Use of the blockchain is simple enough to require minimal training. Carrefour employees using a mobile device loaded with a QR scanner note the arrival of a shipment of Mousline potatoes, which is added to the product’s blockchain history. Once shelved, consumers using the Carrefour app can scan the QR code on an individual box and see what types of potatoes were used, when and where the product was made, where it was shipped from and how long it had been at the store.
IBM is working with more than 50 food brands to integrate their products into the Food Trust, and retailers are showing interest. Due to recent E. coli and salmonella contamination recalls, Walmart and Albertsons have joined the Food Trust and asked their leafy produce distributors to become involved.
“Distributors and retailers always have to calculate how to make sure the products on their shelves are fresh. It’s costly when they go bad or stale,” Livingston says. “When they have an exact timeline to see when a vegetable is picked and when it arrives at the store, that gives the retailer knowledge they
Going forward, it’s expected that blockchain verification could become commonplace in supermarkets. “The more parties involved in the process the better for everyone concerned,” Livingston says. “Transparency only enhances the confidence consumers have in the products they buy, and through their choices that’s what they’re telling us.”
John Morell is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered retail and business topics for a number of publications around the world.