Blockchain for the Supply Chain

If you’ve heard of blockchain but wondered how it might apply to you and the trucking industry, look no further than your Thanksgiving table.

Last year, shoppers with a smartphone could enter a six-digit code printed on the label of a Cargill Honeysuckle White brand turkey and see details about where that particular bird was raised, what it ate, how long it lived at the farm, and where it was processed—a Grade-A example of blockchain technology in a supply chain.

What is Blockchain?

A blockchain is a digital ledger that resides on a network that can be accessed by different parties to a transaction—in this case, Cargill and its family-farmer suppliers. Cargill says its Honeysuckle White blockchain helps consumers verify that a turkey is, in fact, farm-raised and fresh, while improving the company’s ability to trace its product through the supply chain. The cost of cross-contamination, the spread of food-borne illness, and recalls is magnified where there’s a lack of access to information.

Blockchain isn’t just for supply chains. It also has the potential to ensure the integrity of information about financial transactions, government inspections, medical records, and other data that should be both shared and secure.

“The nature of a shared digital ledger means that all participants anywhere in the world are working with the same set of data,” says Craig Fuller, managing director of the Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA) in Chattanooga, Tenn. “They have to agree before a record is changed or added, which raises the level of accountability and reduces the risk of fraud or human error.”

Beyond the Proof of Concept

While blockchain evangelists are excited about its potential, so far it’s only been used in small-scale pilots and proofs of concept.

Cargill’s turkey-tracking program was limited to four farms in Texas and was done in part to market the company’s relationships with independent family farmers. Last August, IBM formed a consortium of food suppliers including Dole, Kroger, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, and Walmart to identify new areas where the global supply chain and the trucking industry can benefit from blockchain.

While the consortium has yet to yield concrete projects, the names involved should get the attention of suppliers, retailers, supply chain partners, and blockchain doubters.

However, the results of blockchain trials are promising.

Track and Trace

Case in point: Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Walmart, presented his team with a store-bought package of sliced mangoes and challenged them to trace it back to its source. The process took six days, 18 hours, and 26 minutes.

Compare that to mangoes in a blockchain.

Using a platform developed with IBM, every document generated during the process from farm to store—including the label on the packaging—was given the same six-digit code and stored in a digital ledger. It took Yiannas’s team 2.2 seconds to determine not only the farm where the mangoes came from, but precisely when and where they were picked, inspected, processed, packaged, shipped, and sold.

Trust but Verify

For blockchain to succeed in the supply chain, everyone in the system needs to participate and their participation has to be prompt, accurate, and ethical, Fuller says. However, there’s sufficient motivation to make that happen.

“The supply chain isn’t just about moving products, it’s about handling information,” he says. “Blockchain has the potential to make both jobs more efficient. It’s the ultimate in trust but verify.”