Walmart Is Hoping a Blockchain Can Clean Up China’s Dirty Pork Industry

A new pilot project aims to track the food supply more closely, to avoid the safety scares of the past.

|
Oct 26 2016, 7:20pm

A customer buys pork at a supermarket in Yichang city, central China's Hubei province. Image: AP

In an attempt to clean up China's safety scandal-plagued pork industry, Walmart is taking a page out of Bitcoin's book. The company is partnering with IBM and a local university to develop a pilot program using blockchain technology to track the country's pork supply for its Chinese stores, the company announced last week. (Hat tip to Coinbase for first reporting on it.) But while making it may improve China's pork industry in the short term, it could ultimately exacerbate the larger issues with factory farming.

"Food authentication and supply chain tracking is a critical step to quickly finding and helping address sources of contamination around the world," an IBM press release read. "[Blockchain] could serve as an alternative to traditional paper tracking and manual inspection systems, which can leave supply chains vulnerable to inaccuracies."

China's appetite for pork has spiked over the last decade, and its farming sector has struggled to meet demand. In 2006, the country consumed 46 million metric tons of pork, according to the US Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service. By 2014, it had jumped to 57 million metric tons (it has since dipped a bit, to 55 million in 2015).

The added pressure on the food system has led to a bombardment of crises, from pork shortages leading to price hikes, to revelations of diseased meat being sold to consumers. It's also contributed to the emergence of new antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Not wanting to have to join the likes of McDonald's—which issued a public apology in 2014 when it discovered a supplier had sold it tainted meat—Walmart is trying to get ahead of the problem with the new pilot. Blockchain technology is essentially a digital ledger that keeps track of information with an unchangeable "block" of information. In this scenario, "farm origination details, batch numbers, factory and processing data, expiration dates, storage temperatures, and shipping details" would be uploaded to the blockchain and linked through a code on the product package, according to IBM.

This would directly address, and ideally prevent, some of the problems the pork industry has encountered, like food safety. However it doesn't address other problems. China has been trying to counteract the rising popularity of more Western meats like pork and beef by pledging to reduce the country's overall meat consumption by 50 percent by 2030. This is an attempt to curb the farm industry' impact on antibiotic resistance and climate change.

Walmart's blockchain pilot, if it works as intended, could risk increasing demand as consumer trust in the industry grows. Blockchain may be a good solution for health risks in the short term, but in the long term, experts agree we need to focus on how to curb global meat consumption to a more sustainable level—not make it even easier and cheaper to get pork chops at Walmart.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.