June 06, 2019

Alexis Bateman in BBC article speaks about a crucial ingredient missing in our food today


The origins of many items on our tables are unknown to the everyday consumer. However new technologies and traditional ways of farming are beginning to close this information gap between farmer and consumer. As a result demand from consumers for better information could transform our food system from the ground up.

“That single package of ground beef can be coming from hundreds of different sources,” says Alexis Bateman, the director of the Responsible Supply Chain Lab at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics. “In the seafood industry, there’s a lot of actual fraud…so people want to make sure it’s the right fish.”

Recently, people have been realizing there is something lacking from their diets: quality information. 

High-profile incidents, like a 2013 scandal when cheap horsemeat was discovered in European beef products, have meant that people today are more wary of eating anonymized produce. “Consumers are realizing that they are more vulnerable than they knew,” says Bateman. “It doesn’t mean our food systems are less safe than they were before, it is that there is a growing awareness.”

The crucial ingredient our diet lacks

But tracing a product from farm to fridge via middlemen, resellers, mixers and packers can be daunting. Even the food’s end seller may not know where it has come from. “The problem is that…they don’t want to offer that information until they have good visibility of their own supply chain,” says Bateman. “Even if they feel like they have a good grasp of their supply chain and they have good practices, some of them still don’t want to in case something were to happen.”

A snack such as a packaged biscuit might contain 18 different ingredients, each with its own intricate backstory. Right now, with the exception of a few foods (like beef), there is no strong evidence that most people will pay more or buy more of a food if it is fully traceable, says Bateman. “Until there is a clear competitive advantage that consumers will always buy the choice that has more information, companies are not willing to disclose that.”

Bateman says the market is changing, though – for example, her local supermarket now has a fridge segment dedicated to traceable foods, something she never could have imagined two or three years ago. “It’s piecemeal, it’s slow but there is this demand and the consumer-facing companies are getting pressure to act which is pushing it up the supply chain.”

To track an orange’s journey to the Netherlands from Brazil, the juice companies used a tool that most people probably associate with the digital currency bitcoin. Blockchain enables cryptocurrency, but it is also very useful for recording other data, such as what happens to an orange after it gets picked.

“Every piece of data is time stamped,” says Inma Borrella, who coordinates the Blockchain Research Group at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics. “It’s not like a database where you can go in and edit data, it just keeps adding continuously. It allows you to keep a record of all the places [a product] passes through and all the different organisations that have touched a product.”

But tracing food brings additional challenges compared with tracking a purely digital product. “When you are talking about a physical item and not a digital asset, you have the additional challenge of getting an accurate translation of the physical world into the digital world,” says Borrella. “It’s about how you make sure the digital record is the truth and not a misrepresentation or even just a human error.”


BBC World News