Food traceability – how does it work with blockchain?

24 Aug, 2021

The power of blockchain technology combined with active and passive sensors has existed for some time, especially in retail. However, it is only in recent years that the food industry has begun to pay them serious attention. Blockchain has the potential to radically improve traceability and protect consumers from counterfeit products.

What is the concept of traceability?

Traceability is an industry term that describes the ability to track goods from source to production, consumption and disposal. The key goal is to identify where the product was made, who produced it, and who sold it. Systems log and track information relating to products as they make their way to the final consumer.

Many sectors of the economy use traceability, particularly those with complex supply chains. You can find it operating in the automotive, pharmaceutical, electronics and food industries. The scope and complexity of traceability varies from sector to sector and even business to business. Not all systems are created equal.

traceability of food at multiple stages

Why is food traceability important?

The food industry is a natural candidate for traceability systems. Firms in the food supply chain need to ensure that their products are safe for consumption. Traceability helps to reduce spoilage, contamination and decrease foodborne illness risk by identifying issues before they reach the end consumer.

When unsafe food slips through the system and winds up in consumer’s stomachs, it can create problems for brands, lead to regulatory action and even force the closure of some businesses. Traceability allows operatives in the food industry to quickly identify the source of an issue and correct it before it causes widespread harm to public health.

Blockchain technology for food traceability

In the past, firms traced food using traditional methods such as paper records and, later, specialist software. Unfortunately, these systems relied on each participating business providing robust and honest information. If they didn’t, then food traceability suffered.

Blockchain, however, improves the situation. It provides technology that makes important traceability records immutable. Once an agent in the supply chain enters information into a shared blockchain-based system, nobody can change it. Transactions cannot be hidden or altered as any attempted change alerts all other users in the system.

Food tracking and tracing

Food tracking and tracing is vital for businesses operating in the food industry. It allows them to follow the movement of both food products and their ingredients through all the steps of the supply chain, both backwards (first mile traceability) and forwards (last mile traceability). Linking production, processing and distribution of products at the ingredient level gives brands the power to ensure product quality and identify and remedy issues in real-time.

First-mile traceability refers to the beginning stage of preparing the product for the customer or distribution location. The first mile includes such steps from packaging the product through validation of the goods to transportation to the logistics center. Last-mile traceability takes place at the next stage until the product is delivered to the customer’s hands.

Using blockchain as a supporting technology for food traceability equally at the first and last mile provides a number of benefits. These include:

  • Discovering sources of wastage in the food supply chain
  • Ensuring that organic certifications on food are legitimate
  • Reducing the risk of out of date food spoiling before reaching the end consumer
  • Reducing attempts to tamper with food or advertise falsely
  • Cutting down on food recalls due to contamination
  • Ensuring end consumers are buying original and not fake products

What is blockchain traceability in the food chain?

Current regulations in many Western markets require food companies to keep records of food stages. Steps documented are information about the stages that food products go through on their way from source to market. Each business in the supply chain must detail one step back where goods came from.

supply chain and food traceability

Unfortunately, such recordkeeping systems have flaws. Often, records do not provide data to rapidly link shipments of food through every point in the supply chain. And in many cases, firms don’t have to keep records of food production further back to the source because they don’t have to. Thus, there are no harmonized systems of records in many countries.

Blockchain changes this setup. Because it decentralizes all data collection, there is no single server where supply chain participants pool their information. Instead, they share all available data with each other over a wide range of “nodes” – individual computer terminals. This ensures that there are always multiple copies of supply chain information in every location, allowing for better traceability across firms and for the benefit of end consumers.

Blockchain essentially puts an end to the ability to alter records once a firm creates them. It generates a transparent environment which, critically, doesn’t rely on trust. Food supply chain firms can do business with producers they know nothing about, so long as they agree to join the blockchain network. There is no need for a centralized authority to mediate between parties.

Why is a QR code on blockchain a wrong choice for food traceability?

food traceability through QR code, and blockchainQR codes are the most widely used ways to communicate information from one firm in the food supply chain to another. Firms simply scan QR codes on the packaging and then upload this information to the shared blockchain system. Consumers can do the same to get a full traceability history of the product going all the way back to the source. Many firms are currently implementing such technology, including big names like Coop.

QR codes, while the most common in product traceability, are not the safest solution. QR codes are so common that virtually anyone can create their own QR code for any piece of information. It is easy to reproduce a given QR code, and it is easy to replace such a QR code with another one with altered information. Not hard to guess, this property of counterfeitability is a green light for counterfeiters.

QR codes are fully reproducible, which means that fraudsters can copy QR codes from quality goods and then pass off counterfeits as the genuine article.

Fraudsters don’t even need any special knowledge to forge a QR code. It is often as simple as using an online tool to create any QR code. Therefore, companies planning to ensure product safety should opt to use non-counterfeit technology to track goods. Such technology is connecting different types of sensors to generate data which are then stored on blockchain.

The sensors in the labels are not easy to counterfeit, while the blockchain-based verification itself is not hackable. The labels along with the sensors also report when the tag is tampered with, which secures the original goods. It is the most secure solution available in the market.

Authena solutions for food safety and traceability

Authena uses more advanced sensor solutions to track and trace food products from the first to the last mile.

First Mile uses a combination of NFC (Near Field Communication) tags and active sensors to actively track goods in transport and storage. Environmental changes that could affect products, geolocation, and tampering during distribution are detected at this stage.

Last Mile differentiates itself from others in the market by providing product information after the manufacturing and at the last distribution mile until the consumer.With a simple tap of a smartphone, the consumer can assess the authenticity of the product when still on the retailer’s shelf and review the journey along the value chain. When the product is shipped to the customer’s hands, they can verify the authenticity of the product at home using their smartphone with the same free Authena app or a simple NFC reading. This end-to-end technology supports public health security.

The technology provides encrypted product information that is stored on a blockchain. This makes them unclonable like QR codes. What is stored on the blockchain using the Authena framework is a trusted set of sensor-derived information that can be audited by authorized entities, accessed by the brands, farmers and by the end consumers to get proof of authenticity and full product traceability.

The authena solution for confirming the originality of food products