As the vice president of food safety at Walmart, Frank Yiannis is passionate about making the food system safer, smarter and more sustainable. Having explored and adopted blockchain technology, his team has seen its impact first-hand.
“It’s the equivalent of creating FedEx tracking for food,” says Yiannis, who believes other businesses can benefit, if willing to make the commitment.
“Blockchain solutions in private enterprise should be business-led and technology enabled. While blockchain is a new and emerging technology that holds a lot of promise, the first thing companies should do is really understand what is the business challenge, problem or use case they are trying to solve.”
Doing the research
Yiannis says in addition to defining whether blockchain technology is the right solution, companies must appreciate the overall approach. “While we as a society have been digitizing information for a few decades, blockchain technology truly digitizes information differently through a decentralized database and once data is captured, it’s very hard to change. It’s a shared digital ledger, not a single entity. It has a record, so everyone sees one version of the truth.
“I spent a lot of time reading books about it, watching videos and talking to tech firms. You have to have an understanding of how it works, so invest in learning more about it. More importantly, actually work with it, test it. We did a couple of pilots, and we gained confidence that it was the right solution.”
Providing what other technologies can’t
Trained as a microbiologist, Yiannis has witnessed how blockchain technology has provided a level of transparency his industry has never experienced.
“It’s shining a light, like a disinfectant holding each actor in the food system responsible.”
In 2016, Walmart conducted two proof of concept studies, one in the U.S. and one in China, using sliced mangos and pork.
“We were really pleased with the outcomes and insights revealed,” Yiannis explains. “We reached out to ten other companies and asked them to join us in testing and scaling the solution together.
“Blockchain has given us the ability to get records on food products, that normally might take days or weeks to get, in a matter of seconds.”
The need for speed
Through a partnership, Walmart demonstrated that tracking mangos from store to farm could be improved from 7 days to a mere 2.2 seconds. Yiannis admits he didn’t know what to believe in the beginning.
“I started off as a major skeptic. I’ve been working in this field for over three decades. The idea of digitizing food and having rapid traceability is something we’ve worked on, and there are other systems out there, but they tend to all be centralized databases.
“We did the baseline, where we brought in the mangos and it took us six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we started working with suppliers and their suppliers in digitizing the information.”
The results, he says, were astounding.
“I was just seeking the truth, but once we did it and the very first time I did the trace-back with the package, tracing the source in 2.2 seconds blew me away.”
Yiannis believes future uses for blockchain technology are unlimited. “There’s a lot of promise for blockchain, and supply chains in particular. The improvements are clearly strength in safety, strength in trust, allowing the system to get smarter together, supply chain efficiencies and the ability to deter fraudulent activity.
“I think the benefits to food will be about gathering intelligence, running smarter and more sustainable supply chains, reducing food waste and providing fresher products.
And while food safety will certainly benefit, it will just be the tip of the iceberg.”