Police, strawberry growers and grocery-store chains spent weeks trying to trace potential sources of contamination in last year’s strawberry-contamination scare, yet an evolving blockchain-based supply-chain system would have been able to provide an answer in seconds.

But it is scotch fillet, not strawberries, that has been traced from the abattoir to retail shelves during a three-month pilot involving meat processor Thomas Foods International, grocery retailer Drakes Supermarkets, and IBM.

The blockchain supply chain

The project marks the Australian debut of the software giant’s IBM Food Trust – an item-tracking system that uses blockchain technology to create an indelible and broadly-available record of every single package’s movements through a supply chain.

Support for the platform by packaging, logistics and other intermediaries creates a clear, auditable record that documents the movements and handling of each individual product as it makes its way to shelves.

The system has already been used in similar overseas trials by companies including Carrefour, Pacific International Lines, Wakefern, BeefChain, Dennick Fruit Source, Scoular, and Smithfield.

While the Drakes-Thomas project hasn’t yet extended overseas, the IBM platform’s global architecture means this could happen relatively easily.

Its introduction to Australia, IBM ANZ head of blockchain Rupert Colchester told Information Age, opens up new opportunities for businesses needing to certify food provenance, improve data flows between supply-chain partners, and trace products in instances of food contamination or product recalls.

Tracing shipments of strawberries through existing manual methods – which rely on paperwork, emails, phone calls and faxes to contact suppliers and review shipping manifests – “is not a particularly cerebral process, but it takes time,” Colchester said.

When all of that information is stored in a blockchain-based shared ledger, the same process can happen within seconds.

“Traceability is the foundation,” he explained. “With a couple of clicks of the mouse, you can see everywhere that a product has been.”

“You can understand whether you need to remove all of that product from your shelves, or need to investigate one of the places where it has passed through on its journey.”

Traceability as a service

Blockchain technology may have built its public perception based on its role in enabling cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, but its application to more mundane business problems has gained it a growing following within industry supply chains and amongst major enterprise IT providers.

Oracle, for one, recently announced its Oracle Blockchain Applications Cloud while SAP has been piloting its Cloud Platform Blockchain service and Microsoft recently released a Blockchain Development Kit for its Azure cloud platform.

IBM’s efforts tie into the Linux Foundation’s open-source Hyperledger Fabric framework, which is built around ‘smart contracts’ that allow transactions to be checked for compliance with contractual or food-handling requirements.

Offering IBM Food Trust as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution priced from $US100 ($A142) per month means even small food producers can participate in expanding food chains without needing their own blockchain expertise.

Participation is critical for building widespread blockchain projects, which have generally been limited in scope for applications like securing medicinal cannabis, improving data security, enabling digital prescriptions, and electronic voting.

Growing interoperability will allow data to be more readily shared between members of a supply chain whose systems have evolved independently over time.

That lingering heterogeneity was a core cause for the long delays in the strawberry contamination case, since investigators had to manually co-ordinate product tracking.

Yet traceability is only one of many applications that the highly-accurate blockchain will enable: as a growing number of food producers and distributors come onboard, the data will help optimise the flow of all kinds of comestibles around the country.

“Once you’ve established that,” Colchester said, “you can do things like optimising the freshness of a lettuce on the shelf in a supermarket by ensuring it spends absolutely minimal time between being pulled out of the ground and appearing on a supermarket shelf.”

Last year, a Commonwealth Bank-led consortium used the distributed ledger technology to track 17 tonnes of Australian almonds being shipped internationally.