Producing companies that want to sell lettuce and salads at Walmart and Sam & # 39; s Clubs will have to learn the skills of cryptocurrency traders, the recently announced retailer giant. By the end of January 2020, Walmart will require Californian manufacturing companies like Dole, Taylor Farms and Fresh Express to join a blockchain-based supply chain that the mega-retailer has been experimenting with for nearly two years to allow Walmart to track the source of foodborne illness.
Switching to the encrypted system of shared information made famous by bitcoins would have allowed Walmart and its suppliers to contain and limit calls to Walmart and Sam & # 39; s Club stores, a $ 280 billion food empire.
"We are asking our suppliers of fresh, leafy vegetables to track down their produce at the source, at farms, in seconds and not days or weeks," said Frank Yiannas, Walmart's vice president of food safety, on Monday.
Walmart's move could upset the way in which the manufacturing industry controls its supply lines, a system that is not only the digital era of the last century, but the current era of interconnected devices "smart" and data encryption capabilities.
Producing companies concentrated in the Salinas Valley and Yuma, Arizona, have been severely hit this year by a nationwide fright on Roman lettuce contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
Five people died and 205 fell ill in the 36-state epidemic that began in April and prompted an unusual national consumer adviser to avoid any lettuce grown in the Yuma region.
Consumers were largely disconcerted and unable to find out where their lettuce was grown, officials recognized at the time.
The strain of bacteria responsible for the diseases was found in an irrigation canal of the Yuma area, but only one farm was identified as the source of an isolated group of illnesses among Alaska prisoners.
The authorities believe that there are more farms that cultivate contaminated lettuce, but have not been able to prove the thesis before lettuce production stops in the region. At the time it was declared in July, the epidemic was the largest and most fatal that has ever affected the production industry.
"The time has come for a better way to tackle the problem of food traceability," said Yiannas. "There is a strong case of public health and a corporate case for doing so."
Yiannas said the blockchain requirement "should not really be a surprise" for those selling in the vast Walmart network. The company has been experimenting with a pilot program for almost two years, involving major food companies such as Nestle, Danone, Unilever and the Driscoll berries in Watsonville.
"We were quite transparent and vocal in the work we are doing," he said.
Dole, for example, participated in the trial period of the company for the system and Taylor Farms, a company known for an aggressive adoption of food safety technology, reacted positively to change, said Yiannas. (Officials with those companies were not immediately available for a comment on Monday).
For suppliers, change is more cultural than technological. Inside, the blockchain is a democratized accounting system where information is not centralized but distributed on a shared ledger.
Instead of losing privacy by moving proprietary data into a centralized space that must be protected from hacking, blockchain creates a network in which each participant shares and verifies limited information, linked by complex encrypted codes, such as train cars.
The first block of the chain would come from growers who provide information from smartphones or, in some cases, from pre-printed boxes and labels. Subsequently, packers and freight forwarders will enter information on each batch of products they process as it passes through their facilities to the trucks and enters the Walmart distribution system.
Every move is known to other parties, who have to verify the activity in a system where nobody knows everything, but everyone knows every move. (Which has earned blockchain the double nicknames of the Internet of Trust and the Internet of Distrust.)
Companies that are already vertically integrated, from field to packaging, face the simplest transition. Others who operate through multiple contracts with independent farmers will face a more complex task, acknowledged Yiannas.
"My feeling is that in due course everyone will understand that this is the right thing to do and come forward," he said.
Conversion into blockchain could offer far more benefits in terms of food safety, experts say. It could accelerate contractors' payment, help companies find out which products have the best shelf life and offer consumers an insight into how a crop has been grown and harvested at a time when they need to learn more about their food.
There are about 900 food-borne outbreaks in the United States each year, resulting in at least $ 152 billion of health care costs, lost work hours and trashed food each year, health officials and analysts say.
The US Food and Drug Administration currently requires companies to be able to track products a step back and a breakthrough. This leaves the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a complex set of multiple strands to track, a task that takes a long time and can take weeks or months and can not find conclusive evidence.
Although most cases of E. coli are related to meat, leafy greens are the biggest culprit in fresh produce, a category that represented at least half of listeria outbreaks, E. coli and salmonella and a third of outbreaks of campylobacter reported from 2009 to 2013
Fresh Express, based in Salinas, has been linked this year to an outbreak of diseases caused by cyclospora that hit the salads and pre-packaged wrappers sold by Trader Joe and other stores and salads served at McDonald's outlets & # 39; s in the Midwest. More than 500 people have been ill.
Del Monte Fresh Produce has been linked this year to a separate infection that involved prepared salad trays that made more than 200 people sick.
This month, the FDA confirmed that it found cyclospora in routine coriander tests in the United States – the first confirmed confirmation of that parasite in domestic products. Previous epidemics have been linked exclusively to products grown in other countries where hygiene standards are less stringent. No coriander disease was found, the FDA reported.
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