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Carrefour kicks off blockchain food traceability drive

Using blockchain to capture data, shoppers will be able to use their smartphones to see exactly where a product on the supermarket shelf came from

Retailer Carrefour plans to use blockchain as a way to provide shoppers with greater information about the products on its shelves.

The supermarket chain has partnered with IBM and will use the IBM Food Trust blockchain network to improve traceability across its supply chain.

The retail chain, which operates more than 12,000 stores in 33 countries, will initially use blockchain across Carrefour-branded products, and this is expected to expand to all Carrefour brands worldwide by 2022.

“Being a founding member of the IBM Food Trust platform is a great opportunity for Carrefour to accelerate and widen the integration of blockchain technology to our products in order to provide our clients with safe and undoubted traceability,” says Laurent Vallée, general secretary of Carrefour. “This is a decisive step in the roll-out of Act for Food, our global programme of initiatives in favour of the food transition.”

According to Carrefour, by using blockchain for trusted transactions, food can be quickly be traced back to its source in just a few seconds, rather than days or weeks. Unlike traditional databases, the attributes of blockchain and the ability to permission data enables network members to gain a new level of trusted information, it says. Transactions are endorsed by multiple parties, leading to an immutable single version of the truth.

Emmanuel Delerm, director of Carrefour’s blockchain programme, says: “Within blockchain, you have the concept of a ledger. The idea is that information from a producer can be encrypted and added to the blockchain. Multiple partners across the supply chain can share information, giving the consumer insight from a traceability perspective about the products being purchased.”

Delerm says the encrypted data collected in blockchain is very transparent. “If you make a mistake, you can never change information,” he says. Carrefour is using this property of blockchain to provide proof to the consumer that a food product’s ingredients can be traced back to an individual farmer, he adds.

In practice, data from all parties responsible for the manufacture of a food product must be collected and fed into Carrefour’s system.

The retailer worked with IBM to develop a set of programming interfaces to provide machine-to-machine collection of data through its supply chain that can be appended to the blockchain. As well as direct connectivity with suppliers, Carrefour also allows suppliers to upload data through secure file transfer, which uses the same programming interfaces to ingest data into the blockchain. The third option open to suppliers is a portal, where Carrefour’s suppliers can upload Excel spreadsheets.

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But traceability is only as good as the data collected, says Delerm. “It is very important to get information from the source at the precise moment an event occurs,” he says. “Farmers in Italy and Spain are quite mobile. They  all have smartphones to check weather forecasts. In the near future, we would like to link mobile information with the blockchain.”

Delerm adds: “We want to use blockchain as the meta system for collecting information across scattered sources.”

Carrefour has set up what Delerm describes as a “smart contract” to support the blockchain food traceability project. This is a small piece of code, which is launched when a supplier enters data into the blockchain. “It is a way to prevent inconsistency in the data collection,” he says. “For instance, if a farmer sends 4,000 chickens to an abattoir, but in the system the figure is 5,000, the smart contract will show the discrepancy.” In effect, the financial ledger will show “+5,000 and -1,000”, giving the correct count.

From a shopper’s perspective, the blockchain is associated with a stock-keeping unit (SKU), which uniquely identifies a product on a shelf. The SKU can be scanned via the shopper’s smartphone, giving Carrefour a means to present additional product information that cannot be printed on the food’s packaging.

Blockchain is a way to extend the package onto a smartphone to reassure the customer that a chicken has been raised by a particular farmer, and give some advice on the farmer’s GM [genetic modification] policy,” says Delerm. “It directly connects the consumer to the producer and positions the product as trustworthy, thanks to traceability.”

The IBM Food Trust is sold as a subscription service starting at £79.93 a month for a small business with less than $50m turnover. The fee for large enterprises starts at £7,993 a month.

Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice-president, clients, platforms and blockchain at IBM Global Industries, says: “The currency of trust today is transparency, and achieving this in the area of food safety happens when responsibility is shared.”

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