Walmart’s Veggie-Tracking B.L.T.: Blockchain Lettuce Technology - The New York Times
When dozens of people across the country got sick from eating contaminated romaine lettuce this spring, Walmart did what many grocers would do: It cleared every shred off its shelves, just to be safe.
Walmart says it now has a better system for pinpointing which batches of leafy green vegetables might be contaminated. After a two-year pilot project, the retailer announced on Monday that it would be using a blockchain, the type of database technology behind Bitcoin, to keep track of every bag of spinach and head of lettuce.
By this time next year, more than 100 farms that supply Walmart with leafy green vegetables will be required to input detailed information about their food into a blockchain database developed by I.B.M. for Walmart and several other retailers exploring similar moves.
The burgeoning blockchain industry has generated a great deal of buzz, investment and experimentation. Central banks are exploring whether it would be good for tracking money flows. Eastman Kodak has explored a blockchain platform that could help photographers manage their collections and record ownership of their work, while a group of reporters and investors are using the technology to start a series of news publications.
“I can’t see how doing this in a blockchain data format will make this magical in any way,” said David Gerard, the author of “Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain.”
“I think it’s mostly a P.R. move, so these companies can sell themselves as blockchain leaders,” he said.
Walmart’s embrace of the blockchain highlights how difficult it still is for grocers, including the nation’s largest, to keep track of their food.
Last year, Walmart conducted an experiment trying to trace the source of sliced mangos.
It took seven days for Walmart employees to locate the farm in Mexico that grew the fruit. With the blockchain software developed by IBM, the mangos could be tracked in a matter of seconds, according to Walmart.
“The food chain is not always linear,” said Frank Yiannas, vice president for food safety at Walmart.
At each stop along the way, people handling produce for Walmart will make an entry on the blockchain, signing off when they receive it and then when they move it onto the next person in the chain. IBM and Walmart say they are already tracking other products like yogurt and poultry on the system.
Blockchains are supposed to make it possible to keep updated databases without any central authority in charge. But currently, all of the records for the Walmart blockchain are being stored on IBM’s cloud computers, for Walmart’s use. That has led to questions about why a distributed database like a blockchain is even necessary.
“The idea is right but the execution seems off,” said Simon Taylor, the co-founder of 11:FS, a consulting firm that advises companies on blockchain adoption. “IBM took new tech that doesn’t need a middleman and made themselves the middleman.”