There are two key points that Kevin Otto of GS1 wants people to understand about blockchain: It is not a traceability solution in itself, and data standards are critical. Otto is the lead for the GS1 US Cross-Industry Blockchain Discussion Group (launched in November 2018) and the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative at GS1 US. Recently the blockchain buzz has been transforming into a more realistic conversation about the future role of the technology in supply chain visibility and the necessary steps to achieve interoperability. In a Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Otto shares what GS1 is trying to accomplish with its relatively new blockchain discussion group, the important role of data standards, and supply chain traceability.
Food Safety Tech: Can you explain the role and goals of GS1’s blockchain discussion group?
Kevin Otto: It’s a cross industry discussion group, so it’s a bit of departure from how we typically approach industry with verticals such as foodservice or retail/grocery. For the blockchain discussion group, we decided to bring different industries together under one umbrella—leading companies within foodservice, retail/grocery, healthcare, and apparel/merchandise—to discuss the use cases and implementations for blockchain. The common thread among so many industries was a focus on improving supply chain visibility. We thought it was a good opportunity to see where we could get alignment and be industry agnostic around how blockchain can be leveraged.
There were a few overarching goals that we were trying to accomplish with the group: The first thing we heard from industry is they’d really like some education without the hype. There seemed to be some confusion with some industry partners that blockchain itself is a traceability solution, which it isn’t. We know that a blockchain implementation is only as good as the data that is feeding it. We want to help various players in these industries clear up confusion, [and understand] that there’s still a need for data standards in order for blockchain to produce meaningful results. As a neutral not-for-profit organization, we thought we’d be a good place to provide education and industry insight.
In terms of other things that this group is trying to do: One thing that we thought was abundantly clear was the need to identify and align on the necessary core standards and master data elements to even approach a trading partner with a supply chain visibility proof of concept leveraging blockchain. If you want to talk about supply chain visibility with your trading partners and you’re not capturing and sharing any standardized data about how product moves through your supply chains today, there’s really no way you can even begin to discuss blockchain with them.
This goes back to the confusion in the industry where people think they can adopt “blockchain” and therefore have traceability. Supply chain visibility is a priority across all of these industries. Now is the time for them to decide what separate pieces of traceability data and master data are needed in order to have these discussions with trading partners. The discussion group will be putting out guidance on what is specifically needed for a blockchain traceability proof of concept.
Another major thing industry had asked from us: A knowledge management center, which is an interactive space where participants in the industry discussion group can post articles, ask probing questions, and interact with people outside of their four walls, and discuss progress of their own proofs of concept. We have been developing this tool over the last couple of months and will launch this summer.
FST: Are there additional the concerns about the use and implementation of blockchain technology?
Otto: There’s a lot of investment that goes into blockchain technology, and we saw a lot of people jumping in with both feet before understanding what the benefit really was to their organization. It’s almost as though blockchain was being positioned as a solution for all supply chain problems. We thought that being able to provide some of this education and insight from industry would help to elevate some of those issues.
I think one of the other concerns that plays a role is interoperability. When you talk about the ability for these different blockchain ecosystems to effectively speak to one another, there’s certainly a need for data standards in that space. There isn’t going to be just one blockchain solution; there are going to be several different players out there and they will need to leverage standards as one step toward interoperability. Our perspective is that we have companies that are already leveraging GS1 standards today through other data sharing mechanisms, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. These standards already exist; let’s make sure we’re using what’s been tested over time, which is a key step in helping ecosystems speak to one another.
FST: How is the use of digitized data provoking a shift in supply chain processes?
Otto: There are still smaller players within the food space who are leveraging paper-based data exchange with their trading partners. As the supply chain grows increasingly more global, the idea that you can have effective track and trace, for example, when the only thing you know is where a product was immediately before it came to you and immediately where it went after it left just doesn’t work anymore. It’s too slow and, quick frankly, dangerous if you have that much manual interaction and that much reliance on paper-based processes in a global supply chain. Certainly we’re seeing more trading partners make digital data exchange one of the prerequisites of their sourcing. The supply chain has gotten so complex that it just isn’t realistic to expect people to play “whisper down the lane” in figuring out where their product went in the event of a recall.
And when you think about the impact of social media and how quickly a recall can become much bigger, it’s imperative that some of these companies within the food and retail industries make sure their processes are buttoned up and that they can communicate with their trading partners quickly, and pull that product out of the supply chain. I think we’re seeing companies saying, if you don’t have a mechanism to electronically exchange data, then we may have to take our business elsewhere.
FST: Talk about your thoughts related to traceability and the need for companies to “speak the same language”. Where are companies in this journey, and where do they need assistance?
Otto: Speaking the same language is imperative. The most sophisticated data sharing methods in the world are of very little use if I don’t understand the data being sent to me. There aren’t any manufacturers, retailers, operators, etc. in the food supply chain whose stated core competency is translating data from their trading partners. That’s why so many of these different companies are relying on GS1 standards—the global language of business—so they can focus on what they do best—providing high quality, safe products to their consumers
In terms of where companies are on this journey: It varies. There are companies that have been adopting standards for traceability for years, and there are always other companies being on-boarded. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The important thing to realize is that this is a business process, not a project. Food traceability is something we need to work at everyday. As we work with all these different companies, they’re increasingly saying that food safety isn’t a competitive advantage—it’s something we all need to do and we all benefit from.
Where assistance might be needed: The food service supply chain is large and complex. When looking at the tens of thousands of independent growers as you get further upstream in the supply chain, we work with other industry associations to make sure they understand our messaging and how GS1 standards can provide value for their business. The challenge is always going to be that if we want to get to farm-to-fork traceability, we have to make sure we are talking to all the independent farmers and growers that you just can’t simply call or talk to on a daily basis. We leverage partnerships to be our voice in those discussions so we can truly connect with the entire food supply chain. That will be a continuous ongoing effort.