IT & Networks

Can digital bits protect what you bite?

Blockchain technology could play an important role in food safety programs over the next few years.

Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the Food and Drug Administration, told the ACT-IAC Emerging Technology Forum June 5 that digital technology could help mitigate risks the FDA faces as consumers have more and more edible options each year.

“I am persuaded that … technology such as blockchain could do for food traceability what the internet did for communication,” Yiannas said. “That’s smarter food safety.”

Current federal regulations concerning food traceability mandate that facilities in the food supply chain track where the product shipped from and where it is shipped to, largely a paper-based process. Being able to quickly, accurately track the increasingly convoluted paths of products could improve response, recovery and prevention time in the case of food-borne illness outbreaks and a need for recall.

“You see that if you try to chase this down on paper, it takes a long time,” Yiannas said.

He added that the decentralized structure of blockchain squares well with the structure of the food system, where there are many different actors across the globe, introducing potential spoilage and improperly vetted points.

As an example, Yiannas told a story from his time working for Walmart. He said he brought mangoes into a meeting and had the staff trace them back to their source. It took his staff more than six days to trace the mangoes back. When they used digital tracing in a pilot later, it took two seconds to trace the mangoes.

Yiannas also noted that artificial intelligence could help the FDA better distribute food safety resources at a time when imports are increasing year after year.

Artificial intelligence, Yiannas said, can help the FDA deploy resources “on products we believe are highest risk.”

“So the emphasis is not on the technology, but the business problem that you’re trying to solve,” he said.

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