Fighting Food Fraud

To intercept future food scandals in Asia and the world, innovations like blockchain and artificial intelligence could prevent fraud and reduce anxiety about what’s really on our plates.

Delivering transparency and trust

Given the extensive trade networks, food fraud can unfold at any point during distribution, making traceability a complicated yet critical component of supply chain integrity.

“The food supply chain lacks mechanisms for information sharing between stakeholders at different phases,” explained Professor Hang Xiong from Huazhong Agricultural University in China. “For even a simple food item, there can be a huge number of actors involved, spread around the globe and with little-to-no knowledge of one another’s actions.”

Although different parts of the chain are interlinked as they pass on goods, exchanging information often proves time-consuming and difficult, especially when involving sensitive data and non-standardized management systems.

But supply chain transparency and protecting companies’ proprietary data need not be seen as trade-offs with blockchain technologies now taking the spotlight in the food sector. While people often associate blockchain with cryptocurrency, the technology broadly refers to a shared but secure ledger. Data is stored as encrypted blocks that are chained together, enabling tracking of these assets throughout a given network.

By enhancing transparency, blockchain technology could revolutionize food traceability efforts, which currently rely on an “ineffective labeling system that can be easily falsified,” Hang noted. Instead, blockchain can be used in tandem with other innovations like radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies that assess products remotely through sensors.

“Blockchain provides data privacy and reduces the intervention of third parties to create a highly trusted platform,” he added. “It is transparent, secure and can rebuild the confidence of consumers.”

For example, Indonesia-based Alko Sumatra Kopi uses a QR code-based blockchain system to export specialty- grade coffee beans, which must all be sourced from a single producer and have no more than three defects. Stakeholders can scan the QR code to access data on the plantation site, and identify the time of harvest, roasting method, taste and aroma profiles—each of which validates authenticity throughout the supply chain.

After several food fraud scandals from contamination to mislabeling, China’s food markets are now also leveraging blockchain traceability platforms to keep a watchful eye over food production, storage and delivery. Bright Food Group, the country’s second largest food company, uses blockchain to simplify its overseas procurement and record logistics data within local markets, providing better visibility from global to local supply chains.

In Guangzhou Municipality, the government’s blockchain traceability system monitors the flow of goods through over 8,000 businesses in 90 agricultural markets in the municipality. To ensure food safety, it collects information on agricultural produce, such as their harvesting date and regulatory approvals. Meanwhile, by developing a traceability system with scannable barcodes, supermarket brand Walmart and blockchain company VeChain allow consumers to verify each product’s source, inspections and distribution data, with packaged meat accounting for over half of the items.

Erinne Ong reports on basic scientific discoveries and impact-oriented applications, ranging from biomedicine to artificial intelligence. She graduated with a degree in Biology from De La Salle University, Philippines.

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