U.S.: Could blockchain have solved the mystery of the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak?

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U.S.: Could blockchain have solved the mystery of the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak?

The first food-poisoning cases came to light in late March — eight patrons of fast-food restaurants in New Jersey suffered bloody diarrhea and cramps that sent them rushing to hospitals.

More than two months later, five people are dead, at least 89 others have been hospitalized, and federal authorities still don’t know where a nasty strain of E. coli bacteria latched onto romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona.

Their struggle to trace dozens of supply lines across 35 states, on a paper trail that often may actually be on paper, demonstrates the limits of tracing food by methods rooted in another century, the LA Times reports.

Food-safety advocates and industry insiders say it may be time to borrow the encrypted accounting platform that drives cryptocurrency: blockchain.

“I often describe that as food traceability at the speed of thought — as quickly as you can think it, we can know it,” said Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety for Walmart, which is scaling up an IBM-driven pilot blockchain that already includes top suppliers such as Unilever, Nestlé and Danone.

Not long ago, Yiannas, who guards the integrity of food in Walmart’s $280 billion grocery empire, would have brushed off the notion of an instantly “knowable” and verifiable food chain as fantasy. He heard about it two years ago, when Walmart was about to open a food-safety institute in China, where 10 years ago a baby formula adulteration scandal sickened 54,000 babies.

“Up until that point I only knew that it was the technology behind bitcoin,” Yiannas said. “I will tell you I was a bit of a skeptic, just like many people are about the technology.”

Blockchain, for all its cloak-and-dagger associations, is basically a democratized accounting system made possible by advances in data encryption. Rather than storing proprietary data behind traditional security walls, companies contribute encrypted blocks of data to a “distributed” ledger that can be monitored and verified by each farmer, packer, shipper, distributor, wholesaler and retailer of produce. No one can make a change without everyone knowing, and agreeing.

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