For Alibaba, food safety begins with the blockchain

© themonnie CC by SA 2.0

In China, food fraud is a big deal. As China’s and one of the world’s largest online retailers, Alibaba inevitably falls in the crossfire of circulating fake goods with its B2B, B2C and C2C services. Unfortunately in the case of tampered and tainted food, the consequences can be dire, even deadly. While Alibaba has been making significant efforts to filter out counterfeit goods for several years now, the e-commerce giant recently announced its decision to deploy a new weapon in the ongoing battle for food safety: the blockchain.

The blockchain, a decentralized spreadsheet that allows users to securely and anonymously authenticate transfers of ownership, is best known for its killer app, Bitcoin, which in turn has gained notoriety for being the currency of ransom payments and other illicit transactions. But Jack Ma, the philanthropic billionaire founder of Alibaba, believes in casting against type by using the blockchain for greater transparency between suppliers and consumers. Namely, by developing a Food Trust Framework as a trusted market for food products distributed through its network.

So far, ZDNet and New Zealand Herald report, Alibaba signed agreements March 28 to collaborate with vitamin company Blackmores, Australia Post and PricewaterhouseCoopers in Australia, as well as New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra and New Zealand Post, to develop and launch pilot frameworks in those two countries. The blockchain would allow the providers, and eventually consumers, to track food products in real-time, so as to prevent any tampering along the way. But Alibaba has yet to detail what kind of interface it would use to make this information accessible to the general public.

In a China rife with tainted food scandals, Chinese consumers are particularly sensitive to the provenance of anything they feed their family or themselves, and the middle class are often willing to pay a premium for quality imported products.

On March 22, reported the South China Morning Post, Alibaba Health signed a deal with Thailand’s CP Group to launch a service that allows Chinese consumers to track the origin and authenticity of eggs produced by the Thai company in China, by a scanning QR code on the egg carton. But this “end-user quality control” method also risks coming under fire in the wake of recent QR code scams in China.

Meanwhile, rendez-vous in Québec, Canada, on April 4-5 for the Food Fraud–Global Understanding 2017 conference, which will bring together food safety representatives from China, the United Nations, North America and Europe–including Arc-net, a platform dedicated to transparency in the food supply chain using blockchain and QR code technologies, which was developed following the 2013 horsemeat scandal in Europe.

More on Food Fraud–Global Understanding 2017 conference on April 4-5, 2017

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