A better steak on your plate thanks to blockchain

Mar 27, 2018
  • IT
  • food
  • SAP

Now more than ever before, consumers want to know exactly what they are eating. Where has their piece of meat come from? Has it been treated with hormones? And under what kind of conditions was the animal raised? Blockchain can help to satisfy their hunger for answers, so it is high time to make wider use of this extremely promising technology in the meat sector. But how can we achieve that? 

Over the past few years the meat industry’s reputation has been considerably dented by a number of scandals that received extensive media coverage: a ban on meat imports from Brazil due to tampering with best-before dates, distressing images of animal cruelty in a Belgian abattoir, and discovery of horsemeat in Swedish ‘beef’ meatballs. So it’s not surprising that consumers are increasingly questioning the quality of the meat and fish on offer, and the integrity of the sector as a whole.

Needless to say, the above-mentioned scandals are extreme cases, but consumers are not always willing to believe that. The worst examples make the biggest impression on them and – whether consciously or unconsciously – influence the choices they make, resulting in an overall decline in meat consumption. How can we reverse that trend? How can we give the meat and fish industry a much-needed boost? The answer is simple: with a healthy dose of transparency. We can rebuild consumer trust by giving people insight into exactly what is on their plate and how it got there, and blockchain can help us to do so.

How does blockchain work?

Blockchain is best known in a financial context as the driving force behind cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. But it offers so many more possibilities! Blockchain is about data, about continuously enriching information, about transparency and about decentralization. That makes the technology interesting for virtually every industry, and especially for ones with complex supply chains – such as the meat chain, for instance.

As the name suggests, blockchain is literally ‘a chain of blocks’. It always starts with a basic block of information, such as a contract, a photo or a signed form. That information is saved in a system that is directly connected to the blockchain. All the blockchain participants (usually the chain partners) can view that basic block of information and must check and approve its correctness by placing their digital signature. All the digital signatures are saved in the blockchain too and – once the majority have confirmed their approval – these form proof of authenticity. It is important to note that the basic information itself is not saved in the blockchain.

Participants can add new blocks of information to the system as they go along. That information always builds on the basic information that is already in the blockchain, and the participants have to check the correctness of the new information and approve it with their digital signature each time. Once the ‘majority vote’ has been reached, the new block of information is permanently added to the basic block and that information can no longer be altered. The information can be viewed by all the participants and they share equal responsibility for it. In practice, it is still possible to add blocks containing incomplete or incorrect information. However, since all blockchain activities are traceable, it is immediately clear who has added that inappropriate information and this creates a cast-iron internal control mechanism.

Blockchain in the meat industry

This is all hugely interesting for the meat industry, of course, because in principle the whole process from farm to fork is like a chain of information blocks, with each one building on the existing information. As the animal and/or the meat moves through the various stages of the process, new information about the product is gradually added each time. Where has the cow been allowed to graze? In which abattoir was the animal slaughtered? How has the meat been processed? Under which conditions was the meat transported to the distribution center? All of these factors affect the quality of the meat. By placing their digital signature, everyone in the chain indicates that they have seen and approved the information.

How it could be implemented

It starts with the farmer, who stores all the key information about his cows in the system. Everyone can then see that information. At each subsequent stage of the chain, the relevant chain partner adds new information to it. This ensures that everyone has access to the most up-to-date version of all the important information simultaneously. If a consumer in the supermarket wants to know where a specific steak has come from, they can simply scan the special code on the packaging to immediately see the information they are looking for. In other words, it is a kind of digital quality label.

Blockchain gives consumers precisely what they need right now: information, clarity and transparency. Not only that, but blockchain is also tremendously useful for the sector itself. Thanks to the internal control mechanism, all of the partners uphold the level of quality together. After all, it is immediately apparent if anyone within the chain is failing to stick to the guidelines. And if, despite all the precautions, anything should go wrong with a product or a batch, the blockchain data can be used to identify the source of the problem straight away.

Dinner is served!

The integration of blockchain technology enables all the information about a batch of meat to be provided to customers and consumers, reliably and transparently. The technology is already available, and yet very few companies in the meat industry are using blockchain in this way so far.

That’s why we at delaware are happy to share our knowledge of blockchain for the benefit of the industry. For example, we are keen to help the industry build a system which brings together all the blocks of information, including a link to the blockchain. With our technological expertise combined with your industry know-how, we already have a great basis to start from. As in the case of most innovative activities, it’s often just a matter of taking the plunge. So we invite you to join us at the table and to take part in the ‘delaware discover day’, where we, the technologists, meet you, the industry experts. Let’s work together on a first proof of concept. Dinner is served!

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