On the Fast Track?

Blockchain technology has the potential to transform food systems, but it will take time

Today, it seems almost an expected part of doing business in the food industry: Unsafe products slip through the cracks and arrive at restaurants and supermarkets where they are available for public consumption.

By now, tracking down the root cause of the problem, alerting consumers and moving unsafe food products off store shelves or out of kitchens should be routine and efficient, right?

Not so fast.

A report late last year from the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general office showed that the federal recall process for about 80% of the nation’s food is so slow it can take up to 10 months to get unsafe products off store shelves—even when people are getting sick.1

To speed up the tracing of unsafe food, averting long, drawn-out recalls, and perhaps preventing the effects of tainted food before they occur, more players in the food industry are considering blockchain technology, also known as distributed ledger tech—the technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Many predict the burgeoning technology is powerful enough that someday it will "empower the entire chain to be more responsive to any food safety disasters."2

"By implementing blockchain, the food industry will be able to more readily solve the problems it’s currently facing—especially issues related to transparency," wrote Judy Fainor, an IT expert at Sparta Systems, a software company.3

"Not only are consumers demanding to know where their food comes from, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is demanding supply chain transparency via the Food Safety Modernization Act. Blockchain makes data easily shareable and permanent—increasing the credibility of the data on any food product and reassuring customers and regulators that the food has a detailed account of its path through various organizations," Fainor wrote.4

Seeing the potential in this powerful technology as an opportunity to revamp their data management processes across a complex network that includes farmers, brokers, distributors, processors, retailers, regulators and consumers, many corporations have already jumped onboard5 and are teaming with tech giants like IBM and Microsoft to adapt blockchain platforms to work in food supply systems.

Last summer, food giants Dole, Driscoll’s, Tyson and Nestlé began collaborating with IBM to develop a blockchain for the food supply system. Later, Walmart, Unilever and Kroger joined the initiative.6 Late last year, IBM, Walmart and Chinese retailer JD.com announced they had joined forces to build a blockchain food safety alliance collaboration to improve food tracking and safety in China.7

In the case of Walmart, IBM was able to reduce a food tracing process from six days to about two seconds, thanks to blockchain. "That kind of transformation can really speed up the decision-making process so you can minimize the health risk from a food-borne illness," said Marie Wieck, who runs the IBM blockchain unit.8

What is blockchain?

Essentially, blockchain technology is a way of storing and sharing information across a network of users in an open virtual space. Blockchain technology allows users to look at all transactions simultaneously and in real time.9

At its heart, blockchain refers to a bookkeeping method that "chains" together entries so that they are very difficult to modify later. It provides a way for large groups of unrelated companies to jointly keep a secure and reliable record of their transactions.10

Infused in a food supply system, blockchain technology can provide everyone in the system with a view of a product’s records, so that they can see every transaction of a food product—from start to finish or from farm to grocery store shelf.11

For instance, a food retailer would know who its suppliers were working with. Additionally, since transactions are not stored in any single location, it is almost impossible to hack the information.12

Blockchain technology then gives food companies the ability to simplify their supply chains with automatic tracking of important information, such as temperature and quality of goods, shipment and delivery dates, and safety certifications of facilities.13

So much of the power and possibilities of blockchain technology in the food industry comes down to food safety monitoring and product traceability.

Blockchain could be used to keep tabs on every single thing that happens to individual or groups of food products. That could make it easier to find out where a shipment of a particular product has been or at what point in the supply chain it was contaminated. Such information could potentially prevent major outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.14

Blockchain technology also can make a difference for consumers. By reading a simple QR code with a smartphone, data—such as an animal’s date of birth, use of antibiotics, vaccinations, and location where the livestock was harvested—can easily be conveyed to the consumer.15

Obstacles to adoption

There are several factors that may hamper the adoption and the effective use of blockchain technology in the food industry:

Awareness: While many in the food industry acknowledge blockchain technology as a top priority, there are industry leaders who aren’t familiar enough with the basics, which could slow decision-making and the adoption of the technology. According to a Deloitte survey, 40% of senior executives of large companies know little to nothing about blockchain.16

Too many choices: The array of competing blockchain platforms and various capabilities can seem overwhelming to organizations that have little knowledge of the technology in the first place. The federal government, too, has not introduced legislation that promotes the use of blockchain in the food industry—leaving it up to the states to provide guidance.17

Standardization: A lack of standardization and regulation around blockchain technology also has many concerned. "Our view is that blockchain [technology] makes sense only if you have common standards for interacting digitally, like those developed for the internet," said Michael Eitelwein, head of group enterprise architecture at Allianz, a global insurance and asset management firm. "If, by working together, we can eventually create common standards for blockchain processes, we will be able to remove a lot of inefficiency from digital business."18

Data needs: The technology is only as powerful as the amount of data contributed by stakeholders in the alliances being formed. "Blockchain adds the most value when you have the largest ecosystem," said Brigit McDermott, vice president of food safety at IBM. "As such, we will seek to build out the ecosystem by collaborating with other stakeholders, including farmers, suppliers and retailers."19

For blockchain technology to actually solve food industry issues, many participants in the supply chain—from farmers to restaurateurs—must buy into the blockchain concept. That buy-in will take time, and it won’t be easy.

"You need to have something in it for all stakeholders in order to get the whole chain going," said Jakob Stausholm, the chief financial and technology officer at Maersk, which is leading a food supply chain project. "That’s the difficult part."20

—compiled by Mark Edmund, associate editor


  1. Jayne O’Donnell, "Inspector General Report: FDA Food Recalls Dangerously Slow, Procedures Deeply Flawed," USA Today, Dec. 26, 2017, www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/12/26/inspector-general-report-fda-food-recalls-dangerously-slow-procedures-deeply-flawed/975701001/.
  2. Sylvain Charlebois, "How Blockchain Technology Could Transform the Food Industry," Dec. 19, 2017, The Conversation, http://theconversation.com/how-blockchain-technology-could-transform-the-food-industry-89348.
  3. Judy Fainor, "Blockchain: The Next Revolution in the Food Supply Chain," FoodDIVE, Jan. 10, 2018, www.fooddive.com/news/blockchain-the-next-revolution-in-the-food-supply-chain/513741.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Robert Hackett, "Walmart and 9 Food Giants Team Up on IBM Blockchain Plans," Fortune, Aug. 22, 2017, http://fortune.com/2017/08/22/walmart-blockchain-ibm-food-nestle-unilever-tyson-dole.
  6. Becky Peterson, "IBM Wants to Use the Technology That Underlies Bitcoin to Help Prevent Major Foodborne Outbreaks Like Salmonella," Business Insider, Aug. 22, 2017, www.businessinsider.com/ibm-and-walmart-are-using-blockchain-in-the-food-supply-chain-2017-8.
  7. Roger Aitken, "IBM & Walmart Launching Blockchain Food Safety Alliance in China With Fortune 500’s JD.com," Forbes, Dec. 14, 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/rogeraitken/2017/12/14/ibm-walmart-launching-blockchain-food-safety-alliance-in-china-with-fortune-500s-jd-com/#217b0f027d9c.
  8. Qin Chen, "In the World of Cryptocurrency Buzz, Blockchain Is the Real Winner," CNBC, Jan. 11, 2018, www.cnbc.com/2018/01/10/in-the-world-of-cryptocurrency-buzz-blockchain-is-the-real-winner.html.
  9. Charlebois, "How Blockchain Technology Could Transform the Food Industry," see reference 2.
  10. Nathaniel Popper and Steve Lohr, "Blockchain: A Better Way to Track Pork Chops, Bonds, Bad Peanut Butter?" New York Times, March 4, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/03/04/business/dealbook/blockchain-ibm-bitcoin.html.
  11. Blockchain: The Next Revolution in the Food Supply Chain," see reference 3.
  12. Aitken, "IBM & Walmart Launching Blockchain Food Safety Alliance in China With Fortune 500’s JD.com," see reference 7.
  13. Fainor, "Blockchain: The Next Revolution in the Food Supply Chain," see reference 3.
  14. Peterson, "IBM Wants to Use the Technology That Underlies Bitcoin to Help Prevent Major Foodborne Outbreaks Like Salmonella," see reference 6.
  15. Aitken, "IBM & Walmart Launching Blockchain Food Safety Alliance in China With Fortune 500’s JD.com," see reference 7.
  16. Fainor, "Blockchain: The Next Revolution in the Food Supply Chain," see reference 3.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Giulio Prisco, "Deloitte’s 2018 Outlook Highlights the Growth of Blockchain Technology, Nasdaq, Dec. 28, 2017, www.nasdaq.com/article/deloittes-2018-outlook-highlights-the-growth-of-blockchain-technology-cm897934.
  19. Aitken, "IBM & Walmart Launching Blockchain Food Safety Alliance In China With Fortune 500’s JD.com," see reference 7.
  20. Popper, "Blockchain: A Better Way to Track Pork Chops, Bonds, Bad Peanut Butter?" see reference 10.

Getting to Know …

Mike Crossen

The mind behind QP’s Mr. Pareto Head comic strip

Current position: Lean enterprise manager, Rockwell Automation, Cleveland.

Education: Bachelor of sciences degree in electronic technology from Cleveland State University.

What was your introduction to quality? I used to repair products returned from customers. These failures affected me. I met some quality engineers on occasion who were helping with these issues, and I really gravitated toward that type of work. Eventually, reading W. Edwards Deming’s books fueled my passion for quality to its current level.

Is there a teacher who influenced you more than others? Why? My fifth-grade teacher, Sister Kathleen Francis. She was a young, hip nun who was really nice, but most importantly, she sang and played guitar during class.

Are you active in ASQ? I belong to the Akron and Cleveland sections and attend several meetings each year. I’ve also presented at many section meetings in Ohio and Pennsylvania. I created the "Mr. Pareto Head" comic strip for QP. The strip has been published every month for nearly 18 years.

What’s the best career advice you’ve received? In large organizations that have been doing things a certain way for a long time, you must be patient. Culture does not change overnight. I still get anxious sometimes, but nowhere near what I used to early in my career.

Any previous jobs you consider noteworthy? I’ve had two stints at Rockwell Automation. Initially, I worked there for 27 years, but had an opportunity to join the Cleveland Clinic and help with its lean Six Sigma efforts. After several years in this medical setting, I returned to Rockwell and was able to bring experience from my years outside of manufacturing. Today, I thoroughly enjoy my work at Rockwell Automation in various lean Six Sigma roles—mostly engineering and manufacturing.

Any recent honors or awards? Received Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and Lean Silver certification through Rockwell Automation.

Personal: Married to Ann for 26 years. Daughter, Michelle, and four grandchildren.

What noteworthy activities or achievements outside of ASQ do you participate in? I belong to Cleveland’s AME (Association for Manufacturing Excellence) Lean Consortia, a group of businesses in Northeast Ohio taking the lean journey.

What was the last movie you saw? "Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown."

What are your favorite ways to relax? I love to walk outdoors. I also enjoy playing guitar on my own and with friends. I write songs and play all types of music, including bluegrass, rock and Americana.

Quality quote (with help from Mr. Pareto Head): "When in doubt—ship it. What customers don’t know won’t hurt them."


‘Statistician’ Among Fastest-Growing Jobs

Statisticians, mathematicians and software developers are among 20 occupations projected to be the fastest growing in the United States between 2016-26, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

The top three fastest-growing jobs listed were solar photovoltaic installers, wind turbine service technicians and home health aides. The top three fastest-declining occupations listed were locomotive firers, respiratory therapy technicians and parking enforcement workers.

For a complete rundown, released by the bureau late last year, visit https://www.bls.gov/ooh/home.htm.


National Engineers Week Planned for Feb. 18-24

National Engineers Week—seven days dedicated to ensuring a diverse and well-educated future engineering workforce by increasing understanding of and interest in engineering and technology careers—is being held Feb. 18-24.

The initiative—nicknamed EWeek—includes training, videos and other resources to help spread the word about opportunities in the profession. Visit www.discovere.org/our-programs/engineers-week for more information.


‘Waity’ Issue

Survey examines quality efforts and wait times at hospitals

Quality efforts can have a positive impact on hospital and clinic patient wait times, but long-standing issues—such as medical professionals being reluctant to change traditional approaches—make significant improvement difficult, according to a new ASQ survey.

According to survey results, process improvement projects designed to reduce average patient wait times decrease times by 55%, from 35.2 minutes to 15.9 minutes. The survey also found that 82% of respondents said patient wait times are either a high priority or very high priority to their organizations.

But despite its priority, quality professionals often are challenged with getting non-quality practitioners to understand and adopt procedures associated with reducing patient wait times.

The results clearly show that process improvement efforts can positively impact patient wait times," said Susan Peiffer, chair of ASQ’s Healthcare Division. "But as physicians and other staff are rightfully focused on patient safety and outcomes, quality professionals have to help them understand that patient outcomes and reduced wait times are simultaneously achievable."

For more results from the survey, conducted online last October, visit https://tinyurl.com/asq-survey-wait-times.

News Briefs

The U.S. Department of Energy Consolidated Audit Program—Accreditation Program (DOECAP-AP) has recognized ANAB as an accreditation body for the DOECAP-AP. That means ANAB can provide accreditation for labs seeking or maintaining qualification to perform analytical services and industrial hygiene testing for the DOE. For more information, https://tinyurl.com/anab-doecap.

The most popular standard for the competence of testing and calibration labs has just been updated, taking into account the latest changes in lab environment and work practices. ISO/IEC 17025:2017—General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories is the international reference for labs performing calibration and testing activities around the world. ISO/IEC 17025:2017 was developed jointly by ISO and the International Electrotechnical Commission under the responsibility of the ISO Committee on conformity assessment. For more information, visit https://tinyurl.com/new-edition-17025.


This Year’s Board of Directors Named

ASQ has named its 2018 board of directors. They are:

  • Elmer Corbin, chair, IBM Corp.
  • Eric Hayler, past chair, BMW Manufacturing.
  • Benito Flores, chair-elect, Universidad De Monterrey.
  • Francisco (Paco) Santos, treasurer, Metalsa Inc.
  • Sylvester (Bud) Newton Jr., section affairs council chair, Arconic Corp.
  • Daniella Picciotti, technical communities council chair, QMS Alliance.
  • Donald Brecken, Commercial Tool Group.
  • Heather Crawford, Emergo Group.
  • Jim Creiman, Northrop Grumman Corp.
  • Ha Dao, Emerson Residential and Commercial Solutions.
  • James Kittredge, Adaptimmune US.
  • Scott Moeller, GI Supply.
  • Raul Molteni, Molteni Consulting Group.
  • Luis Morales, Verizon Telematics Inc.
  • Mark Moyer, Moyer Consultant Group LLC.
  • Paulo Sampaio, Universidade do Minho.
  • Barrie Simpson, Genentech Inc.
  • JoAnn Sternke, Studer Education.
  • John Vandenbemden, Q-Met-Tech LLC.
  • Allen Wong, Abbott Nutrition.


Index Report: Retail Banks Score High

Customer satisfaction with retail banks is at an all-time high, and digital banking is probably the main reason, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

According to a report released late last year, overall customer satisfaction with finance and insurance organizations is up 0.9% to an ACSI score of 77.2 on a 100-point scale. Retail banks climbed 1.3% to 81, closing in on credit unions, which are unchanged at 82.

The same study includes customer satisfaction scores and analysis for insurance companies and internet investment services. For more results, visit https://tinyurl.com/acsi-bank-scores.

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