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Walmart and 9 Food Giants Team Up on IBM Blockchain Plans

Aug 22, 2017

Walmart and a group of food giants are teaming up with IBM to explore how to apply blockchain technology, also known as distributed ledger tech, to their food supply chains.

The coalition includes retailers and food companies such as Unilever (ul), Nestlé , and Dole (dole). They will be aiming to use blockchains, a technology that made its name as the basis of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, to maintain secure digital records and improve the traceability of their foodstuffs, like chicken, chocolate, and bananas.

These companies see blockchains as an opportunity to revamp their data management processes across a complex network that includes farmers, brokers, distributors, processors, retailers, regulators, and consumers. One potential benefit: investigations into food-borne illnesses to take weeks (see this summer's fatal Salmonella outbreak linked to papayas), but a blockchain-based system has the ability to reduce that time to seconds.

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Walmart (wmt) has already run two blockchain experiments in partnership with IBM (ibm). The first involved tracking Chinese pork. The second, which you can read about in Fortune's latest cover story on blockchains and big business, involved tracing Mexican mangoes.

For the trials Walmart used Hyperledger Fabric, a blockchain originally built by IBM and now housed under the Linux Foundation's Hyperledger group. This is the preferred blockchain of IBM, which has been marshaling clients to try the tech across industries as varied as private equity, banking, government, and healthcare.

Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Walmart, was so pleased by the pork and mango trials that he rallied peers to join the cause. "We were so encouraged that we really quickly started reaching out to other suppliers and retailers as well," he told Fortune.

A crate of oranges being scanned as part of a food safety blockchain. Courtesy of IBM 

Those discussions have borne fruit. The industry group, debuting today, also includes members Kroger (kr), McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Driscoll's, Tyson Foods (tsn), and Golden State Foods.

Howard Popoola, Kroger's VP of corporate food technology and regulatory compliance, said that Walmart's experience with the software gave the tech "legitimacy." "The food industry is ripe for a solution like that," he said.

Indeed, the food giants like the idea of simplifying their supply chains with automatic tracking of important information, such as temperature and quality of goods, shipment and delivery dates, and safety certifications of facilities. IBM, meanwhile, is keen on selling subscriptions to blockchain-related services that integrate with its cloud business.

Although the group has not yet announced any new blockchain trials, they are expected to in short order.

"We're asking companies to join to help evolve the solution and guide and steer its direction," said Brigid McDermott, vice president of blockchain at IBM. "We'll do PoCs [proofs-of-concept] later down the line."

Businesses are already putting blockchains to the test in a variety of industries, including cargo shipping, poultry, and diamonds. The new food group is set to bring the technology one step closer to production.

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