Blockchain technology can play a key role in protecting food integrity
Increasing globalisation, and pressures to reduce costs and improve efficiencies, has increased food supply chain complexity, and given rise to concerns about black swan events - high impact but low probability events, an all-island conference has heard. These conditions increase food firms’ vulnerability to adulteration of products through both fraud (for economic gain, e.g. the horsemeat scandal) and threat (for psychological or ideological reasons).
The challenge of, and potential solutions to such events have been addressed by a recent safefood funded collaborative University College Cork-Teagasc research project. The findings from this work were the topic of a one-day seminar held at the Teagasc Food Research Centre, Teagasc on Thursday, 6 December 2018. A diverse audience gathered to hear the results of an all-island industry survey, case studies of initiatives in four other OECD countries, a keynote speaker from the Food Crime Unit at Food Standards Scotland and experts in blockchain technology.
Opening the workshop Dr Seamus O’Reilly Senior Lecturer from the Cork University Business School highlighted the emergence of food supply chain resilience as a key issue in recent years and suggested “some of the more difficult challenges in this area are those posed by the type of incidents we are discussing here today”. In addressing this, discussion focused on prevention, investigation and enforcement. Sharing and exchanging information emerged as important to this, as did putting in place vulnerability assessments and related counter measures.
Dr James McIntosh from safefood said; “We wanted to understand the perspectives of the food industry on the island of Ireland with regard to these concerns and to see if we can learn from other jurisdictions. Some European countries seem to be quite advanced in this space and the US is focused on the issue from a national security perspective”.
Results from the all-island industry survey were presented by Dr Alan Sloane from UCC. He reported that companies on the island of Ireland are aware of these threats and are being proactive in addressing them:
- Three out of four respondents reported that they had systems, or processes in place to specifically deal with adulteration and/or misrepresentation.
- the primary motivation for seven out of ten respondents for doing this is to ensure consumer protection with direct costs to the business motivating a further two out of ten respondents.
Learnings from the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and the US were reported by Professor Maeve Henchion of Teagasc. “Government agencies, commercial companies and the food industry in these countries are putting a lot of resources into this area. Building trust between legitimate food companies and the regulatory agencies is a key focus of activity”.
Food Crime costs £1.17 billion to the UK economy”, said Ron McNaughton, former senior police officer and head of the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit at Food Standards Scotland. “To address this we have set up a crime unit with 10 staff currently dedicated to the investigation of food fraud. We are working closely with partners across UK, Europe and with industry to tackle this issue and over the last few years have taken part in Operation Opson, which is a Europol and Interpol joint operation targeting fake and substandard food and drink”.
The use of the digital technology, blockchain, provided for a lively discussion. Dr O’Reilly continued “Blockchain technology provides an opportunity to bring greater efficiency, transparency and traceability to the exchange in food supply chains and has the potential to play a key role in protecting food integrity; however, it is only part of the solution”.
All presentations from the day are available at: