Nestle, Unilever and other large food and retail companies have joined IBM’s project to explore how blockchain technology can help track food supply chains and improve safety, the companies said in a joint statement.
IBM also said it was launching a blockchain platform that could make it easier for large companies to develop applications using the technology.
Blockchain, which first emerged as the system underpinning cryptocurrency bitcoin, is a shared record of data maintained by a network of computers, rather than a trusted third party.
Food safety scares
Because blockchain can quickly trace the hundreds of parties involved in the mass production and distribution of food, it is expected to make it easier to identify the source of potential contamination during food safety scares.
US retailer Wal-Mart has said previously that blockchain trials had helped it narrow the time it took to trace the movement of mangoes from about seven days to 2.2 seconds.
“Unlike any technology before it, blockchain is transforming the way like-minded organisations come together and enabling a new level of trust based on a single view of the truth,” said Marie Wieck, general manager of IBM Blockchain.
“Our work with organisations across the food ecosystem, as well as IBM’s new platform, will further unleash the vast potential of this exciting technology, making it faster for organisations of all sizes and in all industries to move from concept to production to improve the way business gets done.”
Speaking with one voice
Sceptics have warned that the technology is still in its early days and it may take years before companies reap benefits. Retailers also are fiercely competitive and have a poor track record for collaboration, notably the demise of mobile payment app CurrentC, another highly anticipated industry venture.
“Yes, the industry is cautious because this could be the next best thing since sliced bread but you wouldn’t say everything was fine and dandy after a trial you had with just two suppliers,” one food company told Reuters.
“The key right now is to involve suppliers and retailers and see how well we can share data to oil the IBM blockchain machine,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to speak with one voice and say to the world that food safety is not going to be a competitive issue.”