Imagine that it’s 1993. Two parents are sitting at the hospital bedside of their child in critical condition who was diagnosed with E. coli food poisoning. Now picture their reaction when told by representatives from a food company that, in 25 years, we will have some form of web-based technology that will make food safer.
Promising messages may sound great on paper, but they are of little comfort to those for whom a potential solution comes too late.
Blockchain (and other data collection technology) is often described as being able to improve food safety. These messages typically include how it would improve traceability and speed up a recall. While this increased reactive focus on data collection has a definite place in response to failures in food safety, we are still talking about after incidents or crises have occurred; real people have been harmed; and consumers have become victims, hospital patients, and worse.
Much like a car’s airbag, blockchain definitely may be part of the solution, but deployment after an incident has already happened, regardless of its efficiency, forces us to accept that harm already has occurred.
Over time, after-the-fact responses reduce a company’s options to identify, stop, and correct a failure while the liabilities of that company continue to increase.
Thus, this is where hindsight and insight usually include lawsuits, court trials, and sometimes even changes in legislation. This is where, according to a 2012 study, many companies will experience a sharp drop in their NYSE stock value over an entire quarter of trading, then a return to pre-incident values that requires at least three additional quarters of stock trading.
Consumers are aware that new technologies and food safety practices come with a price tag that increases the grocery bill. But what are we paying for if these steps fall short of protecting us? Consider, also, that while companies frequently recover (or at least survive) after these incidents, those consumers and their families most impacted by a foodborne illness or food allergen crisis never fully recover.
Industry use of blockchain must include a parallel focus on its use to predict and prevent failures before they become crises that harm consumers. This approach brings an increase of options while minimizing (if not eliminating) liabilities. The impact on consumer safety adds great value to technology used in the most proactive sense.
Not all failures can be identified and stopped before it’s too late. However, if industry leaders fail to develop practices and even a culture that embraces predictive analytics driven by a balance of data/technology literacy and human literacy (understanding the true burden of disease, asking the right questions, prioritizing consumers’ safety), then families will ultimately pay for the newest technology that protects industry more than it protects consumers.