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February 28, 2019updated 01 Mar 2019 3:10pm

Is blockchain a cure-all for our modern ills?

By GlobalData Technology

Global hopes remain high that the blockchain revolution will fix everything that is broken today, from improving transparency in advertising spending to solving the recent romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak in the US.

Earlier this month, a Dole Food Company executive provided insight into just how intolerable the food supply chain has become when corporations run their operations using 40-year-old systems.

The US food company is on a mission to apply blockchain solutions in an effort to improve food quality following an unforgivably outdated global food supply chain.

Natalie Dyenson, Vice-president of Dole’s Food Safety and Quality, reenacted details of the recent outbreak to a horrified audience earlier this month during the IBM Think conference in San Francisco.

There is no suggestion that vegetables from the Dole Food Company were involved in the outbreak.

Food health and safety

Last summer’s lettuce scare was sourced to farms in Arizona and resulted in five deaths, 96 hospitalisations and 210 illnesses.

Dyenson revealed that it took the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) one month to “connect the dots” between reported illnesses and the romaine lettuce.

While the FDA tracked the contaminated lettuce to three dozen farms as potential contributors to the E. coli, that figure represents a mere 10% of the farms involved.

The trouble is Yuma, Arizona alone produces 1.5 billion heads of lettuce, representing 5 billion servings, yet the food industry has not kept up with ways to modernise the process of tracking and documenting these goods.

Further illustrating the severity of the problem, following a separate 2017 product outbreak in similar regions, US health officials did not identify the source of the E. coli outbreak to romaine but instead linked it to a more general “leafy greens” category.

Dole Food Company is convinced that blockchain can help reduce the incidence and severity of outbreaks because of the transparency and traceability that comes with blockchain, Dyenson said.

Dole Food Company has been involved in IBM’s early efforts through its Food Trust blockchain initiative. Dyenson noted that food documentation and standards procedures not only differ from country to country, but processing is still maintained using methods as antiquated as pencil and paper.

IBM blockchain consortium

During February’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, blockchain was well represented as a prominent emerging technology for digital transformation.

One high-profile case from the IBM booth involved Mediaocean, a software provider focused on the advertising industry and a partner of an IBM blockchain consortium.

The project, which addresses media supply chains, involved dozens of participants who sought to improve transparency behind media and finance transactions – including budget, authorisation, orders, verification, invoices and payments.

Ultimately, participants will be able to enable campaigns and monitor transactions in the blockchain, having access to workflow visibility across approved budget to final payment, alongside a consolidated audit record of all transactions.

The blockchain debate rages on as to whether providers have equipped global companies with the blockchain network and platform solutions necessary to spur this new market and tackle problems involving food health and media advertising, for example.

The industry continues to make strides bringing together often competitive vendors through open-source communities in an effort to support agnostic, decentralised networks which will operate in any cloud deployment scenario.

Ultimately, this will be achieved through compatibility between leading blockchain technologies Hyperledger Fabric and Ethereum (via Ethereum Virtual Machine/Solidity), with key blockchain participants and communities moving in that direction.

Initial efforts are underway through the sharing of smart contracts, enabled through the partnership between Hyperledger and Enterprise Ethereum Alliance late last year to ensure interoperability between solutions.

Similarly, Hacera has maintained a registry network, which provides companies with access to existing blockchain networks and solutions built on various frameworks including Hyperledger Fabric, Ethereum Quorum, R3 Cordova and others. Participating vendors include IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, SAP and others.