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Unilever, Nestle and other food giants team on blockchain

New consortium centers on food safety and builds on a Walmart project started last year in China.

A group of leading retailers and food companies including Nestlé, Unilever and Tyson Foods have teamed up under a major IBM-led collaboration to explore how blockchain technology can help strengthen the global food supply chain.

Tech giant IBM — which already has been working with dozens of major companies towards developing its "hyperledger" blockchain-based system for corporate use — announced the major collaborative project last week, which it said would help identify new areas where the food supply chain could benefit from the incorruptible, digital tracking technology.

According to IBM, every year 400,000 people die and one in 10 people around the world fall ill due to contaminated food, yet it can take weeks to identify the precise point of contamination. The delay often leads to further illness, lost revenue and wasted products.

Blockchain technology enables a new era of end-to-end transparency in the global food system.

But the firm claims blockchain technology is ideally suited to addressing such challenges as it establishes a trusted, transparent environment for all transactions. This enables every section of the food supply chain — growers, suppliers, processors, distributors, retailers, regulators and consumers — to quickly gain access to information on the origin and state of food.

In total 10 companies joined the collaboration this week, including Tyson Foods, Unilever, Nestlé, Dole, Driscoll's, Golden State Foods and Kroger. Walmart has been working with IBM on the project since last October. 

Marie Wieck, IBM Blockchain general manager, said blockchain is transforming the way companies are able to work together. "Our work with organizations across the food ecosystem, as well as IBM's new platform, will further unleash the vast potential of this exciting technology, making it faster for organizations of all sizes and in all industries to move from concept to production to improve the way business gets done," she promised.

The project will use IBM's own fully integrated hyperledger blockchain platform and draw on multiple pilots, including its research with Walmart to improve traceability of the pork it sources from China.

Frank Yiannas, vice president for food safety at Walmart, said it is an advocate for greater transparency in the food system. "Blockchain technology enables a new era of end-to-end transparency in the global food system — equivalent to shining a light on food ecosystem participants that will further promote responsible actions and behaviors," he said. "It also allows all participants to share information rapidly and with confidence across a strong trusted network. This is critical to ensuring that the global food system remains safe for all."

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