OPINIONTechnology

As Transparency Grows in Importance, So Does Blockchain

Technology can help retailers 'tell the story' of products
Photograph: Shutterstock

More retail trading partners are embracing the technology as consumer demand for transparency grows.

Two years ago this month, I authored a column in Winsight Grocery Business on a new technology that was just beginning to emerge in food retail discussions: blockchain. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, let me summarize it in nontechnical terms. Blockchain is a growing digital record of transaction “blocks,” which eliminate paper records and manual inspection processes in supply-chain transactions. These blocks also make it difficult to alter or tamper records.

When implemented properly, blockchain technology can:

  • Assist retailers and manufacturers in tracking down sources of foodborne illnesses in a mater of seconds, as opposed to weeks.
  • Help retailers and manufacturers become better storytellers on the journey from where it was produced, grown or raised, right up to when the consumer purchases it.
  • Reduce food waste by managing the shelf life of fresh perishables (e.g., schedule shipments of limited shelf-life products to stores geographically located closer to the producer).

Since my December 2017 column, blockchain has continued to take shape in the retail food sector. Walmart now requires its produce suppliers to utilize blockchain technology in its supply chains. Recently, the retailer’s Canadian division also launched what’s deemed the world’s largest blockchain-based freight-and-payment network for its third-party freight carriers. And just two months ago, Topco Associates and Abingdon, Va.-based Food City announced plans to pilot a blockchain-based traceability system to track seafood shipments as well as the product origin.

While the full magnitude of blockchain technology on our industry is still anyone’s guess, its emergence reinforces an overlying theme that we’ve been seeing for at least the past few years: consumer demand for transparency. We’re already seeing this in the form of clean labeling. Blockchain technology takes this trend and branches out beyond a product’s ingredients, enabling consumers to instantly learn the story of the product. As we’ve reported in our annual resource publication "What’s In Store" over the past several years, storytelling is part of the experience that brick-and-mortar stores can use to engage consumers and drive traffic, especially to their fresh departments.

As manufacturers and sellers of food, it’s vital for our industry to keep abreast of emerging technology that could affect on our operations. Technology is one of the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s seven influencers. Our association has a continuous pulse on the innovations and automation concepts that oftentimes become necessary and welcomed processes in how we conduct business.

To help our members and the industry learn more about blockchain technology and what the future holds, we’re teaming up with GS1 for a live webinar (register here) on the subject on Jan. 23. 

Technology waits for no one. Having an understanding of new advancements weaving their way into our operations will help our industry be prepared if and when they become mainstream.

Mike Eardley is president and CEO of the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association.

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