In a bid to prevent food poisoning from tainted romaine lettuce, Walmart now requires suppliers to use a new blockchain-based traceability system.
The retailer announced the initiative in a letter to suppliers this week. The scheme will be mandatory for all its suppliers of lettuce and leafy greens from 31 January next year.
The development follows an especially deadly outbreak of E. coli from tainted romaine lettuce in the US this year, which left at least five people dead, put almost 100 in hospital and left more than 200 others ill. E. coli is known to be the single largest cause of food-borne illness in the US, although Walmart is emphatic in its letter that fresh leafy salad greens are “overwhelmingly safe”.
The company has piloted the new blockchain-enabled, end-to-end traceability system for 18 months with the IBM Food Trust network. Walmart says that this system slashes the time needed for tracing a package of lettuce back to its precise farm of origin from days or weeks to seconds.
Blockchain traceability systems are now becoming common in the work of procurement professionals engaged in industries where high visibility is a priority, from coffee to shipping containers. Walmart describes its system to suppliers as both user-friendly and low-cost. Walmart spokesperson Molly Blakeman said that suppliers simply need a smartphone and internet to take part.
However, independent food safety consultant Sarah Taber, who conducts safety audits on farms, sounded a note of caution. Although blockchain is excellent for tracking digital assets but is by no means infallible when it comes to physical assets. No digital system, she said, could compensate for inadequate controls in the field and the supply chain.
The human touch in supply relationship management and quality control remains, it would seem, indispensable – a fact acknowledged by Walmart, which requires all of its suppliers to pass specific food safety audits. But it remains crucial to find rapid ways of tracing the source of a contaminated food product whenever a bacterial outbreak is initially suspected.
Nick has over 30 years procurement experience in consulting, outsourcing and line roles within industry with international experience across many sectors and industries and led many procurement programs with blue chip organisations.