Food defense concerns highlight the potential of technology, say Irish researchers

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18 Dec 2018 — Blockchain technology offers the opportunity to bring greater efficiency, transparency and traceability to trade in food supply chains and has the potential to play a key role in the protection of food integrity, however, it's just part of the solution. This is what Dr. Seamus O & # 39; Reilly from Cork University Business School says, who spoke about the opportunities and challenges for the use of blockchain in the Irish agri-food sector in light of a recent collaborative research project funded by University University Cork-Teagasc.

The events of recent years, such as the sale of beef, the deliberate contamination of strawberries with needles in Australia and the sale of Accord potatoes as the first queens in Ireland, highlight the topicality of the related issues of food fraud and of food defense. All food companies are exposed to these threats and vulnerabilities in the supply chain. If they are not prevented or adequately met, these can lead to illness and death, as well as economic and reputational damage to individual companies, and indeed to the wider food industry. Blockchain can be part of the solution.

Click to enlargeDr Alan Sloane, UCC; Dr James McIntosh, safe food; Prof. Gerry Boyle, Teagasc; Dr Seamus O & # 39; Reilly, UCC; Ron McNaughton, Food Standards Scotland and Prof. Maeve Henchion, Teagasc at "Integrity of the food supply chain of the Isle of Ireland: the potential of blockchain technology" at Teagasc Ashtown. "There's a lot of technology advertising campaign and companies are very interested in seeing how it works, and some of the biggest companies have even put their toes in the water with some commercial companies (tech / consulting) for see how their company can be used as a case of use, "says prof. Maeve Henchion, principal researcher of Teagasc (the Irish agency for agricultural and food development) FoodIngredientsFirst.

"The food industry is a low-margin industry, so once the hype drops a little, companies will focus more on how technology can meet their current needs rather than that go along with the hype.They will focus on how technology can add value to your business so that they can identify the right use cases.It will not be appropriate in all cases, "adds .

For Henchion, the blockchain must be seen in the context of the broader digitization of agriculture and nutrition. "Having said that, however, perhaps the greatest potential is in the area of ​​sustainability and affirmations that differentiate the product on the basis of greater sustainability, that is what we call credibility attributes according to which consumers / customers must believe that an attribute is present rather than actually able to verify it by itself (for example, it states that a product is organic rather than attributes that can be seen in relation to color, size, etc.), "he says.

Henchion takes over a pilot scheme in the organic sector in Ireland that involves the blockchain company Origin Chain and Glasson Farm. With 1.6 percent of certified Irish organic producers (73,000 hectares) and more than 1,700 organic producers registered in four certification bodies, blockchain technology can help provide a further guarantee of farm traceability.

Increasing globalization and pressures to reduce costs and improve efficiency, have increased the complexity of the food supply chain and raised concerns about black swan events: high impact but low probability events. These conditions increase the vulnerability of food businesses to adulteration of products through both fraud (for economic gain, such as the horsemeat scandal) and the threat (for psychological or ideological reasons).

Click to enlargeThe results of the survey on the industry of all the islands were presented
by Dr. Alan Sloane of UCC.
The challenge and potential solutions to such events were addressed by a recent collaborative research project funded by the University Cork-Teagasc University. The results were the theme of a one-day seminar at the Teagasc Food Research Center, Teagasc, on Thursday 6 December. A diverse audience met to hear the results of an industry survey of the whole island of Ireland, case studies of initiatives in four other OECD countries, a principal speaker of the Food Crime Unit at Food Standards Scotland and experts in blockchain technology.

Opening the workshop, O & # 39; Reilly highlighted the emergence of the resilience of the food supply chain as a key issue in recent years. In addressing this problem, the discussion focused on prevention, investigation, and enforcement. Sharing and exchanging information has emerged as important for this, as well as assessments of vulnerabilities and countermeasures have been implemented.

Dr. James McIntosh of Safefood said, "We wanted to understand the perspectives of the food industry on the island of Ireland about these concerns and see if we can learn from other jurisdictions. quite advanced in this space and the United States focuses on the issue from the point of view of national security ".

The results of the survey on industry of all the islands were presented by Dr. Alan Sloane of the UCC. He reported that the companies of Ireland are aware of these threats and are proactive in addressing them. Three out of four respondents reported having systems or processes in place to deal specifically with adulteration and / or false declaration. The main motivation for seven out of ten respondents is to ensure consumer protection with direct business costs that motivate two out of ten respondents.

Experiences from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United States have been reported by Prof. Maeve Henchion of Teagasc. "Government agencies, commercial companies and the food industry in these countries are investing a lot of resources in this area.The trust between legitimate food companies and regulatory agencies is a key objective of the business", observed.

Click to enlargeWith 1.6 percent of certified Irish organic producers (73,000 hectares) and more than 1,700 organic producers registered in four certification bodies, blockchain technology can help provide a further guarantee of farm traceability."Food crime costs 1.17 billion pounds ($ 1.4 billion) to the UK economy," said Ron McNaughton, a former senior police officer and head of the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit at Food Standards Scotland. "To solve this problem we have created a criminal unit with 10 employees currently dedicated to investigating food fraud, and we are working closely with partners across the UK, Europe and with industry to tackle this problem. and in recent years have taken part in the Opson operation, which is a joint operation of Europol and Interpol aimed at counterfeit and shoddy food and drink, "he added.

Recent fears suggest that the blockchain can help to track full traceability in the exact location of the farm.

Last month, the United States and Canada were shaken by yet another E.coli outbreak; this time for the Roman lettuce. In a December 13 update, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it further perfected traceback analysis to the company level, which restricts the list of cultivated areas in romaine that the FDA advises consumers and retailers to avoid the following counties: Monterey, San Benito and Santa Barbara. The counties of San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz and Ventura in California have been removed from the list at this time. Other growing areas, such as Florida, Mexico, and growing desert regions near Yuma and Imperial County, Riverside County, do not appear to be related to the current epidemic.

Investigation teams from the FDA Product Safety Network, the California Public Health Department, California's Nutrition and Agriculture Department and the CDC analyzed samples of romaine lettuce, soil, water, sediments and animals in the farms identified by the traceback survey. Most of these samples were negative for the epidemic strain, with some samples still being analyzed. However, the strain of E. coli O157: H7 which caused the current epidemic has been identified in a sample collected in the sediment of an agricultural reservoir in a ranch owned and operated by Adam Bros. Farming, Inc., in Santa Barbara County. The strain isolated from this sample corresponded to those collected from people suffering from this outbreak using Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS).

The FDA has confirmed that Adam Bros. Farming, Inc. has not shipped any drugs since November 20, 2018. Experts are working with the farm to determine how contamination has occurred and which corrective actions need to be taken before their next season of growth. "Adams Bros is collaborating with the FDA and CDC in this epidemic investigation, and they are committed to remembering products that may have come into contact with water from the reservoir where the epidemic was found," reports 39; agency.

The news and the complexity of the supply chain highlight the growing role of blockchain technologies in traceability, with increasing pressures on the suppliers of their retail customers.

In his presentation, O & # 39; Reilly noted that in January 2018, Maersk and IBM announced plans to establish a new blockchain. Since the collaboration began in June 2016, several parties have piloted the platform, including DuPont, Dow Chemical, Tetra Pak, Port Houston, Portbase Port System of Rotterdam, the Netherlands Customs Administration and Customs Protection and United States Customs.

In the background of E. Coli Food security scares around lettuce, in September 2018, Walmart said it praised the benefits of lettuce and spinach monitoring through the supply chain through the use of blockchains. Walmart and Sam & # 39; s Club invite lettuce and spinach suppliers to contribute to a blockchain database that can identify contamination quickly and efficiently.

Their suppliers received a letter requesting to trace their products back to the farm using blockchain technology. Walmart says that vendors should have all these systems running by September 2019. All new green leafy vegetable suppliers should be able to track their products on farms (per production batch) in seconds, not days. To do so, suppliers will be required to acquire digital, end-to-end tracking information using the IBM Food Trust network.

In November 2018, it emerged that the French retail giant, Auchan, had implemented the TE-FOOD blockchain-based food traceability solution in France, with further international roll out planned in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Senegal.

But beyond retail and food security, there's also a fun side to the blockchain. For example, in the summer of 2018 and a first for the beverage industry, Crown Bevcan Europe & Middle East launched its CrownConnect technology in partnership with FACT, a UK-based company. , a natural sparkling beverage. Each can is marked with a unique 2D scannable code, which makes the FACT beverage cans the first to be produced with a unique digital identity. The product was presented as a key innovation at BrauBeviale 2018. Downstream (launched in November 2017) is considered the first beer to use blockchain technology, "revealing everything you want to know about beer, its ingredients and methods. of production ".

O & # 39; Reilly also highlighted the recent example of the adoption of this technology by the pilot, including the launch of a blockchain initiative to allow customers to offset their carbon footprint in an ice cream parlor London inaugurated this summer. While Ben & Jerry & # 39; s committed to buying carbon credits to offset the negative impact of each scoop, customers are also invited to offset their purchase and donating an additional penny. At the end of the one-month pilot project, Londoners had helped save 1,000 trees, covering the equivalent of 77 tennis courts.

Henchion emphasizes that despite the hype, the absorption of the blockchain must be seen in context. "There is certainly a lot of talk and Walmart, Albert Heijn and other retailers are bringing technology into certain supply chains, and while this has increased expectations, it may not be an indication of a long-term trajectory. , RFID [Radio Frequency Identification] it did not take off as planned when Walmart asked its suppliers to use it. While RFID technology plays a role in Walmart's supply chains, it's not as if it were originally planned, "he concludes.

By Robin Wyers

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