US retail giant Walmart is assessing whether the digital technology 'blockchain' can be used to trace chemicals across some of its products and packaging.
Blockchain is a digital record keeping system that enables the creation and maintenance of a growing number of records, allowing fast tracking of information. It was originally created to manage transactions through the crypto-currency Bitcoin, but has since shown potential for sharing and retrieving many other forms of data.
In its 2018 global responsibility report, the company says the technology holds a lot of promise for "enabling a new era of transparency and enhanced trust".
A Walmart spokesperson told Chemical Watch that,"the beauty of blockchain is that it lets us shine a light on a range of data attributes".
"We have certainly thought about how we could trace chemicals in foods and food packaging among these," she added.
Blockchain, she said, lets companies confidently and precisely pinpoint ingredients and suppliers, with dates, times, locations, temperatures, certificates and more.
"It can provide an extraordinary level of detail that we would definitely like to see include chemical ingredients, direct and indirect additives and colours," she added.
Last year, Walmart collaborated with Chinese online retailer JD.com, IBM, and the Tsinghua University National Engineering Laboratory for E-Commerce Technologies to create a 'Blockchain Food Safety Alliance'. This aims to enhance food tracking, traceability and achieve greater transparency across the food supply chain.
In a trial of the technology, the company first asked a team to trace a package of sliced mangoes back to their source using current methods. Because of paper-based record keeping commonly used in the industry and multiple layers in produce supply chains, it took six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes.
However, using blockchain it was able to trace a mango in a US store back to its origin on a farm in Mexico in 2.2 seconds.
"Such capability would help enable rapid processing of recalls and help limit potential exposure to affected products," it said.
It also ran a blockchain pilot in China on pork, significantly reducing the time needed to trace products back to the farm.
Its potential has sparked the formation of a coalition comprised of the suppliers and retailers Danone, Dole, Driscolls, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick, Nestlé, Tyson, Unilever and Walmart. The aim is to identify new areas where the global supply chain can benefit from blockchain.
The technology is a hot topic and has been linked with its potential use for a number of materials and products, including the tracking of conflict minerals and nanomaterials.
In a 2017 report on the mining industry, service provider PwC says through its use, materials could be tracked and traced from the "moment of extraction to the point of sale". This, it says, would satisfy increasing consumer demand for both improved supply chain transparency and more environmentally sound products.