ARMONK, N.Y. — IBM is making its IBM Food Trust system more available globally after testing the system with specific companies for 18 months, IBM announced Oct. 8. The blockchain-based cloud network system enables greater traceability, transparency and efficiency across the food industry, according to IBM.

IBM defines blockchain as a shared, immutable ledger for recording the history of transactions. The system may allow companies to trace items such as finished products, raw material and ingredients back to the source in seconds rather than days. Retailers, suppliers, growers and others in the food industry may use the system.

IBM will offer three modules: trace, certifications, and data entry and access. The first two modules are subscription-based, beginning at $100 per month, while the module for data entry and access is free.

The trace module involves both backward and forward traceability, said Ramesh Gopinath, Ph.D., vice-president of blockchain solutions and research for IBM. He gave baby food with apples, sweet potatoes and pumpkin as ingredients as an example of backward traceability. IBM Food Trust would be able to trace the apples, sweet potatoes or pumpkins back to the farm level. He gave beef from a slaughterhouse as an example of forward traceability. IBM Food Trust would be able to trace the beef to its different destinations, perhaps to a retail outlet or as a patty stored in a warehouse.

The certifications module is for compliance purposes. It allows companies to upload inspection certificates to IBM Food Trust and share them with other companies along the supply chain.

The third module, data entry and access, is free to encourage companies to share needed information.

“This is primarily to ensure that participants are encouraged to upload their information to help with solving the traceability or the certificate management problems,” Dr. Gopinath said.

He said growers are a focus in this module.

“They (the growers) can still join the system and upload the data for free, and the supplier and the retailer benefit,” Dr. Gopinath said.

IBM also has addressed the issue of data ownership.

“Who uploads the data owns the data,” Dr. Gopinath said.

Whatever company uploads the data to IBM Food Trust then decides what other companies have permission to see the data. Companies receiving permission may use the information for internal purposes, but they cannot share or sell it.

IBM in August 2017 formed a consortium to explore how blockchain technology may improve the safety and transparency of the food supply chain. The collaboration included Tyson Foods, Inc., Walmart, Inc., Dole Food Co., Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger Co., McCormick & Co., McLane Co., Inc., Nestle S.A. and Unilever. Since then retailers and suppliers have tracked millions of individual food products on the system.

The system was conceived to address food safety concerns and improve recall processes in the event of a contamination. It has evolved to benefit the food supply by improving shelf life and product freshness, reducing waste, and making the supply chain more efficient, collaborative and transparent, according to IBM.

“The currency of trust today is transparency, and achieving it in the area of food safety happens when responsibility is shared,” said Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice-president, IBM global industries, clients, platforms and blockchain. “That collaborative approach is how the members of IBM Food Trust have shown blockchain can strengthen transparency and drive meaningful enhancements to food traceability. Ultimately that provides business benefits for participants and a better and safer product for consumers.”

Expansion of the blockchain system took place this year.

Walmart Inc., Bentonville, Ark., has worked with IBM on blockchain technology since 2016. The company in September of this year said it will require its leafy greens suppliers to implement blockchain technology to ensure traceability and food safety by September 2019.

Carrefour, a European supermarket chain, will use IBM Food Trust on company products in France, Spain and Brazil before expanding to other countries in 2022. The retailer has 12,000 stores in 33 countries.

“Being a founding member of the IBM Food Trust platform is a great opportunity for Carrefour to accelerate and widen the integration of blockchain technology to our products in order to provide our clients with safe and undoubted traceability,” said Laurent Vallée, general secretary of Carrefour. “This is a decisive step in the roll-out of ‘Act for Food,’ our global program of concrete initiatives in favor of the food transition.”

Other organizations joining IBM Food Trust include Topco Associates, L.L.C., which represents 49 members reaching over 15,000 stores and 65 million weekly customers, and retailer-owned cooperative Wakefern, which represents 50 member companies and 349 stores. Suppliers who have joined IBM Food Trust include Smithfield Foods Inc., BeefChain, Dennick FruitSource and The Scoular Co.

“Blockchain holds the potential to help us be more transparent and transform how the food industry works by speeding up investigations into contaminated food, authenticating the origin of food, and providing insights about the conditions and pathway the food traveled to identify opportunities to maximize shelf life and reduce losses due to spoilage,” said Ed Treacy, vice-president of supply chain efficiencies at the Produce Marketing Association.

3M is working with IBM to enable 3M’s food safety diagnostic equipment to communicate with the blockchain network if a food manufacturer wishes to enable this capability. Emerson is leveraging its cold chain technology to provide temperature-related information on in-transit, refrigerated cargo to improve shelf life estimates and the freshness of food. Centricity, a grower-owned company, is working on collecting, protecting and sharing agronomic and compliance data between systems and trading partners, regardless of formats.

“The power of IBM Food Trust is in bringing together not only retailers and suppliers but also the rest of the ecosystem touching our food supply,” said Natalie Dyenson, vice-president of food safety and quality for the Dole Food Co. “For example, Dole is working with Centricity, a grower-owned partner, to connect audit data to the blockchain by leveraging the Trellis framework as a standard for the produce industry, using existing formats and processes. By simplifying on-farm and front-office reporting and putting data on the blockchain, IBM Food Trust has helped Dole unlock the value of compliance data across our suppliers and partners in a cost-effective way.”