UPDATED, 4:45 p.m. In the wake of back-to-back foodborne illness outbreaks linked to leafy greens, Walmart wants its leafy greens suppliers to have blockchain-enabled traceability in place by this time next year.
Direct suppliers will need to have one-step-back traceability on the network by Jan. 31, and end-to-end traceability is expected by Sept. 30, 2019, according to the letter the company sent to suppliers.
“We’re committed to providing our customers with safe, quality foods,” vice president of food safety Frank Yiannas said in a news release. “Our customers deserve a more transparent supply chain. We felt the one-step-up and one-step-back model of food traceability was outdated for the 21st century.
“This is a smart, technology-supported move that will greatly benefit our customers and transform the food system, benefiting all stakeholders,” Yiannas said.
The company consulted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and determined that better traceability would make a difference in outbreak investigations.
“Enhanced ability to trace a contaminated food back to its source will help government agencies and companies to identify the source of a foodborne disease outbreak, coordinate more effective recalls of foods thought to be contaminated, and learn where past problems began,” Robert Tauxe, director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, said in the release. “We think these steps will strengthen future prevention efforts and better protect the public’s health from the threat of foodborne illness.”
Walmart has worked with IBM and 11 other companies to create what it describes as a low-cost, user-friendly traceability system. The network has been in development for more than a year.
Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain efficiencies for the Produce Marketing Association, served as an industry representative on Walmart and Wegmans pilots of the technology, and he explained that companies participating in the Produce Traceability Initiative already have the key pieces in place to join the network without much more work.
“The requirement for PTI case labeling has been in effect for Walmart’s produce suppliers since the end of 2013,” Treacy said. “As well, their requirement of the use of electronic advance shipment notifications (ASNs) has been in effect for fresh produce since 2017. These are the two foundational requirements needed to be compliant with the blockchain request.
“If (companies) are labeling their cases with PTI-compliant labels and sending ASNs to Walmart already, the remaining steps should be relatively simple,” Treacy said. “If they choose to participate at the level that gives them access to the full supply chain transparency information on the blockchain as well as take advantage of the certificate management module for food safety and other market access audits using the Trellis framework, they should expect to see an increase in operating efficiencies.”
To start the process of joining the network, suppliers can go to http://ibm.com/food/getstarted. Walmart and IBM have also recorded webinars to give more details about the new requirement.
Treacy concurred with Walmart’s statement that complying with the new requirements should be fairly inexpensive for suppliers.
“The cost is as low as $0 if companies choose minimal compliance with no benefits,” Treacy said. “If they want to integrate their systems and have access to the blockchain data to realize benefits to their company, the cost starts at $100 per month.”
He expects that suppliers of other produce commodities will also eventually be required to get on blockchain to continue doing business with Walmart.
Walmart found much success with its initial pilot of the technology, which determined the origin of a fresh produce item in mere seconds.
The new requirement by the retailer follows E. coli outbreaks linked to leafy greens late last year and this spring. In both instances, illnesses were attributed to a commodity in general rather than a specific supplier, causing sales to slow across the industry.