Imagine if while buying products, you can scan an apple and see its entire story, from the moment it was picked up from a tree, to your local grocery store, right on your smartphone.
This is just one way companies expect to use blockchain technology in the food industry. The same network recording system that powers cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin is now used to document the origins of what we eat and, even potentially, helps to trace the origins of contamination outbreaks.
At a time when the food we consume every day is plagued by fraud – from the misleading label to products that are not exactly as they claim to be – the promise of a more transparent food supply chain is certainly tempting.
But while major organizations like IBM and Walmart are already investing in this new technology, some food safety experts are skeptical about its ultimate profitability.
Walmart has completed several pilots, including a lift that proved how long it would take to trace the origins of a mango package.  Using a blockchain system in which all the subjects involved in the process of growth and distribution of food used the same collaborative software, they claim to have been able to trace the origins of the ipment in a few seconds. This would have required a week or more if they relied on the traditional infrastructure in which the different parts of the supply chain used their own separate systems and processes.
Monitoring of food origins, cultivation methods
Blockchain creates an unalterable record of transactions with each new entry. In addition to tracing the origins of specific foods, it can also be used to certify information on individual suppliers.
For example, the UK-based Provenance company works with suppliers to verify their claims, that a farm is certified organic or independently owned, or to demonstrate and record its position as a registration for consumers who are committed to eating more local foods. In this way, says the company, they are helping people better understand the food they are consuming.
Founder of origin Jessi Baker says the blockchain can "tell the story of the food we eat."
"Blockchain has potential promises, but the clamor must be separate from the facts", says Lawrence Goodwin, director of food safety and quality Program at McGill University.
"Hype has blinded many real details that need to be smoothed before it is implemented," he adds.
When we know of the epidemic, it has all been consummated, and there is nothing to remember. -Lawrence Goodwin, McGill
While Walmart's mango test may seem impressive, it does not take into account the complexities of tracking food in the real world, especially in the case of a contamination outbreak, says Goodwin.
"In order for public health officials to know that there is an epidemic, those people have to go to a doctor or hospital, but most people do not, so it takes weeks or even months before we know that an outbreak is happening. "
For foods that have shelf life – such as romaine lettuce, which has been a constant cause of concern during an E. coli epidemic that it took months to go back to its origins – "when we know of the epidemic, everything has been consummated, and there is nothing to remember."
It relies on honesty at the source
In other words, Goodwin says, until the source of contamination is known, a blockchain food tracking system can not help.
In addition, the premise of a transparent source record requires that the input of data at the source be accurate. And given the high rates of food fraud around the world – like sugary maple syrup, watered down or tilapia laying like halibut – there's little reason to believe that the information recorded on the blockchain is valid, says Goodwin .
However, the hope is that once the source of an epidemic has been identified, blockchain technology could accelerate the process of tracing the origin of the contamination. Moreover, due to its relatively transparent nature, it would push suppliers at every stage of the chain to be more responsible.
Of course, this would still require all those suppliers to invest in blockchain solutions. This could be the biggest challenge to successfully implement this type of tracking system.
After all, blockchain is still relatively new and untested. And for many people, it is best known as the technology that powers Bitcoin, the highly volatile and highly controversial form of cryptocurrency.
So companies like Walmart are eager to invest in blockchain solutions, for smaller organizations, their perception of the blockchain – and all of his Bitcoin baggage – may be what prevents them from buying.
And this is a challenge, because blockchain-based food tracking really works, it requires everyone involved in that complex system of growers, processors, distributors and retailers to get on board.