A $55.5 billion problem
A reassessment of our current food system through systems design and blockchain
In May 2013, my best friend started to notice the onset of flu-like symptoms. Assuming she was catching a rare springtime flu, she rested for a week. But, she couldn't shake the sickness. She was starting to feel more and more sick, unable to accomplish her school work because of the deleterious effects of whatever was ailing her.
It wasn't until the whites of her eyes began to yellow that doctors finally figured out what she had: Hepatitis A.
She was one of the unlikely victims of a Hepatitis A outbreak caused by contaminated Townsend frozen berries sold at Costco. This outbreak affected people in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada (2). All Townsend frozen berries had to be recalled – every single bag in the freezers of Costco had to be thrown away.
Food safety is a $55.5 billion problem in America (2). Grocers can lose over $100 million in sales through the impact of a food recall. Additionally, the long-term reputational damage further increases the negative effects of this issue, leading to even greater costs.
How might we increase the health of our food system through the use of blockchain?
It is really hard to pinpoint exactly who gets sick. And, it is really hard to rapidly figure out where the root of the outbreak is. In one example, a pint of Jeni's Ice Cream tested positive for listeria (3). A seemingly simple pint of ice cream has a long journey from the variety of sources for ingredients (dairy, sugar, berries, eggs, etc.) to its creation in the kitchen, to the many hands that are a part of the supply chain process.
Good design comes from a thorough understanding of the system behind what is to be designed. Our food system is an immensely complicated system layered with a multitude of entities, many of which are unknown to one another. The disjointed and lengthy chain that comprises this system makes it easy for outbreaks to occur, but extremely challenging and expensive to battle them.
In the case of Jeni's ice cream, they approached their challenge much differently than most instances – they chose complete transparency. They closely examined all their production processes, testing every inch of their ice cream's journey. Upon realizing the outbreak started in their kitchen, they meticulously examined how they were bringing the many ingredients – strawberries, to honey, to whiskey – into their kitchen. Ultimately, they changed everything they did.
As a result, they are a "sleeker" organization, stronger and much more prepared for the prevention of an outbreak even starting (3).
Jeni's had to take a long and expensive path to become this new and sturdier version of themselves. If blockchain were integrated into the food system, these lengthy processes would become obsolete. Transparency would be at the forefront of all processes to begin with. No ingredient would be able to hide; no party would be able to deny their responsibility.
It is a huge undertaking to successfully intertwine blockchain into the food system, requiring participation from everyone to succeed. To do so would require thoughtful design, visualizing the current system in its entirety, exploring the pain points, and finding the opportunity areas where blockchain can most effectively be incorporated. It would need a ground-up rebuild.
While people are guilty of taking on band-aid solutions or trying to work within outdated structures, by being smart designers, the system can be re-written to support a healthy society. We would see a healthier environment, economy, and people on an individual and societal level.