What’s the true cost of your bacon?
You may buy your pork in your local butcher or supermarket, but have you actually stopped to think where it comes from? And what role can blockchain technology play in the food industry?
Food safety issues
Even though supermarkets present their food to be fresh and delicious, are you actually able to tell it’s safe to a consumer? It’s something that we take for granted and naturally presume that if it is being sold by a major chain, then it is safe for human consumption. But as many as 1 in 10 consumers suffer from illnesses related to foodborne diseases every day, and of those 420,000 people die. The reality is that the majority of consumers are unaware of how their food gets from the farm to fork. And often companies spend vast amounts of their budget to keep the truth from getting out.
Supply Chain in the food industry is surprisingly complex and involves multiple changes of hands. Many areas can go wrong, but predominantly most problems occur in two areas: food processing and distribution.
In unregulated environments such as suppliers are known to take shortcuts such as adding illegal substances to reduce their prices and keep up with demand.
You are what you eat
We’ve all read the stories about how bad bacon be no matter how delicious it is but did you know pork consumed around with world has been known to have been tainted with harmful chemicals? In China – a country where pork is the most popular meat – livestock farmers started feeding clenbuterol in pig feed in the 1980s – a steroid which eliminates fat and grows muscle, with the aim of getting the animals onto the market faster to keep up with consumer demand. This substance was then later banned in 2002 due to unpleasant and dangerous side effects. Despite this ban, it was later found that ractopamine – a chemical similar to clenbuterol – was found in pork, but only after hundreds of people fell ill.
This is not limited to just one country though. In 1999 Belgium’s food industry was hit by a series of international bans after it was discovered that livestock from the country could have been contaminated with 50 times the recommended level of the cancer-causing agent – dioxin. This led to millions of pounds worth of chicken and pork products exported from Belgium being destroyed. A couple of years later, an illegal hormone medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA – an ingredient used in hormone replacement therapy and human birth control pills) was found in pig feed and soft drinks in 15 European Union including Belgium and The Netherlands, which were the hardest-hit, as well as Germany, France, Spain and Portugal.
The United States of America has a legal loophole that allows meat with salmonella to be sold in their supply chain. Yes, you read that correctly – bacteria-infested meat can be legally sold, along with chlorinated chicken, ractopamine-fed pigs (which has been banned by nearly every country in the world, expect the US) and bacon with additives strong enough to cripple pigs. Campaigners Soil Association in the UK has warned the British government that this dirty meat could flood the UK market if a trade deal is signed post-Brexit.
Environmental and ethical factors
It’s not only essential to know what livestock are fed, but also the environment in what they are raised. As an example, in 2012 pigs being raised on a giant toxic dump in Jiangsu province in China were linked to a dozen cancer deaths to the presence of chemical waste buried in the pig pens. No superpowers were discovered, unfortunately.
Growing pigs have been found to live on hard, slatted floors so that their excrement can be conveniently washed away, in – illegal – barren systems without straw and half of sows are put into farrowing crates.
A total of 81 percent of UK piglets have their tails docked – without any anesthetic is they are under seven days old – to stop them biting each other when boredom turns into aggression. Something that can be easily avoided if pigs have access to straw, hay, and wood according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
These pigs are bred to be grown as quickly as possible for a quick and more profitable turnover, with the help of growth hormones. They are ready for slaughter as early as five months old - that is twice as fast as higher welfare breeds!
Now, this all sounds depressing and sad and while this might be the current way the system works it’s not the only way by any means. While tracking your food might not be the top of your priority list certified products is undoubtedly a huge part of millennials product choices. With the right certification and technology, we can ensure what we are buying is everything we think it is.
Tracking the source
Blockchain may have started as the underlying tech for cryptocurrencies, but it is quietly starting to shake up the food and drink industry, where trust is low and tainted by food scandals. The distributed ledger technology – aka Blockchain technology – is attracting interest as a way to track and monitor food through the supply chain network, ensuring its origin and that has not been tampered with en route.
If retailers and distributors could see and validate with certainty where every pig was brought up, handled, stored and inspected, plus each and every stop made en route to the store, the details could be shared via DLT.
Blockchain can increase accountability and transparency among multiple suppliers, middlemen, and retailers. When something goes wrong, the point in the chain — and the participant — can immediately be identified and verified.
The food industry hopes that blockchain can tackle the current provenance issue to ensure that the pork from acorn-fed pigs does indeed come from a British farm rather than a cramped pigsty in China, while also confirming that neither child labour or trafficked workers were involved in the production process.
By scanning a QR code, consumers will have access to clear data points such as farm location to where it was slaughtered and how long it has been on the shelves. This transparency improves overall food safety by being able to pinpoint tainted food in a matter of minutes avoiding prolonged outbreaks and by reducing food waste when food is destroyed during such outbreaks.
It also allows consumers to shop for fresher food, by being able to track each step of the harvest on the blockchain, while deterring food fraud as each step is visible to EVERYONE making it impossible for fraudulent food entering the supply chain. And it will instill trust to an industry so severely tainted.
As consumers have the power to scan their food products and trace it back to where it came from, it also promotes responsible food practices as producers will be more likely to adhere to safe products and ethical treatments. In fact, it gives them a way to accurately promote their trade without having to rely on heavy marketing campaigns, as it will all be backed up with blockchain.
For food producers, blockchain technology could give them a competitive edge while validating a premium price over similar products that don’t use the tech. By weaving technology into their products, it enhances their credibility when stating their products are organic or free-range and builds reputation and brand loyalty among consumers.
Practices that would usually take days to weeks to track can now be done in a matter of seconds! This saves the industry billions in revenue annually, not only by making it more transparent but more efficient.
Those who decide to stay off the blockchain, well what does that say about them?