IBM’s Suzanne Livingston describes how Blockchain technology can help traceability of fresh produce through the supply chain March 27 at the Salinas Valley Ag Tech Summit. ( Carol Lawrence )

SALINAS, Calif. — Blockchain, the digital transaction technology that enables cryptocurrency, has found a new user — the food industry.

Suzanne Livingston, offering director at IBM, helped the company develop a blockchain data-tracking system, Food Trust. At the Salinas Valley Ag Tech Summit on March 26-27, she explained  how participating in the technology can help growers establish traceability.

During a March 27 session at the summit on the campus of Hartnell College, Livingston said IBM developed Food Trust over two years in partnership with Walmart. The retail giant now requires fresh leafy greens suppliers to use the system, which launched last fall.

In one of the first tests of the system, Livingston said, Walmart’s food safety team, using traditional techniques such as paperwork trails and phone calls, was pitted against Food Trust to track down the source farm for a package of fresh-cut mangoes.

It took Walmart’s team six days to locate the farm that grew the imported fruit. Food Trust found it in 2.2 seconds, Livingston said.

“When we showed that, and demonstrated that to other companies, there was the realization that this could be the technology that bridges all the levels of the supply chain and brings them into a single view so that you don’t have to keep calling; you don’t have to keep searching through paperwork; you don’t have to be on the hunt every time there’s a potential issue,” she said.

Rather, the cloud-based system acts like an electronic net — collecting, storing, linking and securing information about a food product that users submit as it moves through the food supply chain. As each entity handles the item, it submits data that tracks the product, which IBM then encrypts.

The system establishes traceability, Livingston said.

Growers and shippers may feel Food Trust’s greatest benefit is speed — its ability to quickly show where any product is in the supply chain — when there is the possibility of a food safety problem. Growers, shippers or retailers can “surgically” recall the products, Livingston said, “so they don’t get into the hands of consumers, very quickly.”

After its launch, companies came to IBM with ideas to use the technology for other purposes.

“Think about the data required for traceability — the transactions, who does it come from, who is it going to, what’s the content of it,” she said. “That information can enable a lot of different use cases in the food supply chain.”

Those uses include supply chain management – because the system encourages digitization of paperwork, and allows users to see the end-to-end chain. Another is food waste reduction, because under a new module not yet available, Food Trust can track a product once it’s been harvested, and then alert the current handler that its shelf life is nearing the end so it’s put into use quickly, Livingston said.

Food fraud, or preventing it, is another potential application for Food Trust by “enabling consumers to know the product they’re buying is what it claims to be on the labels,” she said.

IBM designed the system with layered access, which means that companies contributing the data can choose whether to make it available to others using the system, and which users. That’s because the company submitting the data such as certifications, audit reports and inspection reports owns it, not IBM, Livingston said.

“You’re keeping an open line of communication with those transaction partners to say, ‘I’m taking the steps required of me;’ or, ‘I’m even going above and beyond what you’ve required of me. I want to show you that I am,’” Livingston said.

Finally, IBM allows for third-party developers to build functions through APIs that IBM doesn’t plan on including in the network, Livingston said, such as applications that may alert when a food’s optimal temperature range is not being held.

As part of IBM’s aim that Food Trust enables transparency, consumers can also be allowed to access data through applications, such as a food’s country of origin, and region.

Food Trust client global food retailer, Carrefour, shares product traceability with its customers on chicken through its own shopper app. By scanning QR codes on chicken packaging, shoppers and app users can see every step and location the item has been through from the farm to the store. Carrefour will be expanding the practice to other items, Livingston said.

A roundtable discussion gave attendees an opportunity to give suggestions to Food Trust.

An attendee, who said she was a vegetable grower, said that learning how long a fresh product sat waiting – while at a sea port and not in a cooler — could potentially help a vegetable grower deal with liability issues.

Customers of Food Trust include ShopRite parent Wakefern Food Corp., grocery group purchasing org Topco Associates, The Kroger Co., Driscoll’s and Dole.