Feels good, but not really: Wal-Mart says it enhances food safety with test of blockchain technology

Olga Kharif of Bloomberg reported last week that if you shop at Wal-Mart, you might be buying packaged produce unlike any ever sold in a U.S. store.

blockchain-nov16The sliced apples or cut broccoli — the merchant won’t say what’s involved exactly — are being used to test blockchain, a new database technology. If successful, the trial could change how Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which serves some 260 million customers a week, monitors food and takes action when something goes wrong. That could spur big leaps in food safety, cut costs and save lives.

Like most merchants, the world’s largest retailer struggles to identify and remove food that’s been recalled. When a customer becomes ill, it can take days to identify the product, shipment and vendor. With the blockchain, Wal-Mart will be able to obtain crucial data from a single receipt, including suppliers, details on how and where food was grown and who inspected it. The database extends information from the pallet to the individual package.

blockchain“It gives them an ability to have an accounting from origin to completion,” said Marshal Cohen, an analyst at researcher NPD Group Inc. “If there’s an issue with an outbreak of E. coli, this gives them an ability to immediately find where it came from. That’s the difference between days and minutes.”

It’s also the difference between pulling a few tainted packages and yanking all the spinach from hundreds of stores, according to Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart.

“With blockchain, you can do strategic removals, and let consumers and companies have confidence,” Yiannas said. “We believe that enhanced traceability is good for other aspects of the food systems. We hope you could capture other important attributes that would inform decisions around food flows, and even get more efficient at it.”

More than 1,000 foodborne outbreaks investigated by state and local health departments are reported each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The CDC estimates roughly 48 million people are afflicted annually, with 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 dying. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has suffered a year of falling sales as a result of several outbreaks.

walmart-frank-nov-16In October, Wal-Mart started tracking two products using blockchain: a packaged produce item in the U.S., and pork in China. While only two items were included, the test involved thousands of packages shipped to multiple stores.

The blockchain is a distributed ledger where companies doing business with each other — such as growers, distributors and retailers — can record transactions securely. The database’s strength lies in its trustworthiness: the difficulty of reversing or changing what’s been recorded. The blockchain database can also hold much more data than what retailers get today, providing tools for more detailed analysis.

That could help Wal-Mart deliver food to stores faster, reducing spoilage and waste.

That’s all fab and I applaud Wal-mart Frank on his efforts,

But none of this is public at the grocery store level. Consumers are still left with faith-based shopping choices in the produce and other aisles.

And blockchain sorta seems to go against Wal-mart Frank’s philosophy of not describing the supply system as a food chin.

Wal-mart serves more meals than anyone on a daily basis.

They’ve made significant food safety steps, but still resist the call to pull back the curtain on what makes microbiologically safe food – the kind that doesn’t make people barf.

Market food safety at retail so consumers can choose: Not training or technology

Maple Leaf Foods hosted its Sixth Annual Food Safety Symposium last week in Mississauga (that’s in Canada).

hucksterAccording to The Poultry Site, this year’s event was themed ‘People or Technology’, asking participants to debate which was the best investment to make a step change in food safety globally.

Dr. Randy Huffman, SVP Operations and Chief Food Safety Officer at Maple Leaf said, as many do, that food safety as a non-competitive issue and the company actively shares food safety learnings and promotes sharing of information among industry and government groups.

These are the wrong questions and wrong assumptions.

Yes, people need training – ever seen a peer-reviewed paper evaluating the effectiveness of such training?

Yes, new technology does wonderful things and also creates wonderful new opportunites for new bugs because food is a biological system that will always change.

Yes, food safety should not be a competitive issue and information should be shared.

But that’s not marketing at retail.

Any time I say, food safety should be marketed at retail – E. coli counts in spinach, Salmonella in eggs, Listeria in (Maple Leaf) cold cuts, I get told food safety is a non-competitive issue.

But I’m talking about marketing. People say the reason they buy local, organic, natural, sustainable, dolphin-free and hundreds of other categories is primarily because of safety.

market.naturalAs a consumer, I want to know which eggs have a history of low Salmonella counts. The technology exists and is being used to access complete restaurant  inspection reports with smart phones on those A-B-C rating in New York City.

Food safety may be non-competitive, but implementation is altogether different: some companies are better than others. As a parent doing all the grocery shopping, I want to know what companies are better at microbial food safety. As a PhD in food safety, I want to figure out how best to convey meaningful information.

But have your conferences, feel important, and read barfblog.com daily and bear witness to the outrageous levels of microbial food safety failures.

The kind that make people sick.

The UK version of the 20 most significant inventions in the history of food and drink

This is adapted from the Atlantic, which parsed the conclusions of the UK’s Royal Society, and I agree with almost all of them.

1. Refrigeration
The use of ice to lower the temperature of and thus preserve food dates back to prehistoric times. Machine-based refrigeration, however, was developed as a process starting in the mid 18th century and moving into the 19th. Domestic mechanical refrigerators first became available in the early 20th century. Throughout its long history, refrigeration has allowed humans to preserve food and, with it, nutrition. It has also allowed for a key innovation in human civilization: cold beer.

2. Pasteurization / sterilization
Useful for the prevention of bacterial contamination in food, particularly milk. 

3. Canning

4. The oven
The earliest ovens, found in Central Europe, date from 29,000 BC.

5. Irrigation

6. Threshing machine/combine harvester

7. Baking

8. Selective breeding / strains

9. Grinding / milling

10. The plough

11. Fermentation
Beer. More formally, “the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions” — which leads to such products as alcohol, wine, vinegar, yogurt, bread, and cheese. Mostly, though: beer. 

12. The fishing net

13. Crop rotation

14. The pot

15. The knife

16. Eating utensils

17. The cork

18. The barrel

19. The microwave oven

20. Frying

Will machines that go Ping increase handwashing compliance?

Money is a good way to get an administrator’s attention.

Monty Python figured this out in 1983’s, The Meaning of Life.

In The Miracle of Birth bit, as a laboring woman is wheeled into the delivery room surrounded by the machines meant to assist birth, the hospital administrator, Mr. Pycroft, arrives.

“Wonderful what we can do nowadays.

“Aah! I see you have the machine that goes ‘ping’.

“You see, we lease this back from the company we sold it to, and that way, it comes under the monthly current budget and not the capital account.

“Thank you. Thank you. We try to do our best. Well, do carry on.”

Tina Rosenberg of the N.Y. Times reports on the health blog today that handwashing compliance in hospitals generally sucks, provides a thorough overview of why it sucks, and notes that hospitals are now paying more attention to the matter: money.

“In 2008, hospitals were told that Medicare would no longer reimburse them for the cost of treating preventable hospital-acquired conditions it calls “never events,” which includes many kinds of hospital-acquired infections. The new health care reform bill instructs states to do the same with Medicaid. Many insurance companies also now refuse to pay for never events. This tends to concentrate the minds of hospital executives. …

“In the last year or two, several new ways to promote hand-washing – all things that beep – have made their debut: HyGreen, BioVigil, Patient Care Technology System’s Amelior 360 and Proventix’s nGage are some of them, but there are others. Some are spinoffs of systems widely used to track hospital equipment (this is how hospitals can find a wheelchair when it is needed). All employ new technology that can detect alcohol — which in hospitals is a component not only of rubbing gel but also soap.

“They work like this: every health care worker wears an electronic badge. When she washes her hands or uses alcohol rub, a sensor at the sink or dispenser or her own badge smells the alcohol and registers that she has washed her hands.

“Another sensor near the patient detects when her badge enters a room or the perimeter around a patient that the hospital sets. If that badge shows that her hands were recently washed, it displays a green light or something else the patient can see. If she hasn’t washed, her hands, the badge says so and emits a signal to remind her to do so. The sensor also sends this information to a central data base. Information about the hand-washing practices of a particular unit, shift or individual is instantly available.”

There is some evidence the systems work, but they are also expensive.

And sorta useless without a culture change.

Rosenberg writes any technological fix should be accompanied by “creating a culture of accountability, redesigning hand hygiene systems to make hand-washing easy and automatic, and other strategies.”

We prefer shock and shame.

630 now sick from salmonella in hamburger, calls for improved communication

The salmonella outbreak that has now sickened more than 630 students in Poitiers, France, has led calls for improved communication.

Centre Presse reports a meeting with different concerned parties took place in a closed session at the Prefecture. The FCPE (Federation of Boards of Parents of Students in Public Schools) and the PEEP (Parents of Students in Public Education) were invited.

The teenagers consumed hamburger patties contaminated with salmonella, produced by the Inalca company based in Italy and distributed by the Pomona company into different school cafeterias in France.

Stéphane Jarlégand, the regional Prefecture’s Chief of Staff, said yesterday, “An international investigation is underway,” and that to date, the children have all overcome this misstep and none suffered any “serious effects.”

The French seriously need to improve their communications.

Staff announced that a working group had been set up to “test new technologies able to provide rapid emergency messaging to parents.”

It’s possible that the chosen path will be an automated call broadcasting a clear message that could be sent out via SMS. The system is already in place in Vienne through the Centrale de Civaux (the nuclear plant in Vienne – a.h.) and also for floods.