Nestlé trials blockchain to improve food-ingredient supply chain transparency

Swiss food manufacturer Nestlé SA is involved in a project to trial the use of blockchain technology. The key aim is to improve the transparency of the worldwide food-ingredient supply chain, and hence to strengthen consumer confidence in food safety. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, the ‘Food Trust’ project involves nine other food industry giants, including Unilever and Walmart.

In this stage of the project, Nestlé is using blockchain to track the fruit and vegetables that go into some of the products in its Gerber range of baby food. If successful, this will not only provide consumers with insight into the origin of the ingredients, but will also improve the food industry’s ability to take swift action in the case of product recalls.

Chris Tyas (photo), Global Head of Supply Chain at Nestlé, explained that the company is keen to build consumer confidence, not only during recalls but on an everyday basis. That is why Nestlé has now decided to focus on baby food: “People want to know, quite rightly, where ingredients they give to their baby have come from”, he said. “We wanted a product in which trust meant something.” Last year Nestlé tested the traceability of its Libby canned pumpkin on Food Trust and learned that tracking a single-ingredient food from a limited number of US growers is relatively simple, according to Chris Tyas. The current baby food experiments take things a step further, involving multiple ingredients and some cross-border transactions.

Building interfaces

Tyas added that the main challenge for the technology and business experts is to build interfaces to deal with the multiple datasets in different formats for all the different ingredients from the farmers, processors and others in Nestlé’s supply chain. The next step is to collaborate with other companies in the food industry, because single food giants working with individual suppliers and retailers would result in siloes of data, he said. As a central electronic record-keeping system with data about harvests, processing, packaging and shipping to which all industry partners – including competitors – have access, Food Trust can substantially speed up investigations into food safety issues, saving valuable time and money in the case of recalls.

Food Trust is based on IBM’s blockchain technology. Blockchain, best known as the encrypted peer-to-peer technology behind bitcoin which creates a permanent, tamper-proof and real-time record of transactions, is now increasingly being used in various business applications, including in supply chains.