Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon welcomes guests to the Food Safety Collaboration Center in Beijing. 
On Oct. 19, 2016, Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. opened the Walmart Food Safety Collaboration Center in Beijing. The center’s opening signals a commitment to unite food safety experts and industry stakeholders tasked with improving food safety in China. Initiatives will focus on several areas, including analyzing root causes of foodborne illness and developing scalable solutions to implement across the food supply chain in China. Wal-Mart and the Wal-Mart Foundation plan to invest $25 million over five years to support research projects.

One of the projects employs a blockchain, which is technology that has been used mostly in the financial services industry. Pilot projects developed by Wal-Mart, IBM and Tsinghua Univ. will use blockchain technology for the benefit of food safety in China with the goal of bringing traceability and transparency to the country’s pork supply chain logistics.

Building blocks of food safety

Computers in the blockchain are called nodes, and each node has a copy of a ledger of transactions. When a transaction is made, at least two nodes must approve it before the transaction is added to the ledger. Blockchain is best known for underpinning cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. But the use of blockchain technology for food traceability is the first major test of blockchain’s capabilities beyond the financial services industry.

Wal-Mart is running two blockchain projects – one in China, and another around produce traceability in the United States. Frank Yiannis, vice president for food safety at Wal-Mart, says the issue of traceability became a recurring conversation as the company prepared to unveil the food safety center project.

“During the course of those conversations this issue of traceability kept coming up – traceability in China and in other parts of the food system around the world,” Yiannis says, “because regulators in China are very interested in this topic. And so, we talked to a lot of organizations that claim to have traceability solutions but we somehow partnered up with IBM, and a conversation about blockchain technology and what they were doing as a potential traceability application. So the idea without question clearly originated from ground-level work we were doing on the Walmart Food Safety Collaboration Center.”