For Frank Yiannas, the vice president of food safety at Walmart (WMT), monitoring the source and distribution routes of food products is key to ensuring customer safety. The U.S. retailer has worked with IBM (IBM) to develop means of utilizing blockchain technology to track its supply chain, with a particular emphasis on food products. This emerges as the most recent of several examples of non-tech companies adopting blockchain technology for purposes outside of the realm of its original design, which was as a ledger and tracking services for transactions made with digital currency Bitcoin. How will Walmart use this new technology? And could it be a revolutionary step for the retail industry in a broader sense?

Inspired by a Health Scare

Yiannas explains in an article by Fortune that his company was inspired to utilize blockchain technology for supply chain monitoring by a deadly E. coli scare that happened about a decade ago. The tainted food was, in this case, spinach, and Yiannas believes it goes back to poor practices of sourcing and tracing the contaminated food products. "Consumers, in general, stopped eating spinach...if you could track and pinpoint where that came from faster, you could alleviate all that and ensure consumer confidence continues," he said. Beyond that, in a case like this one, you could also potentially reduce the number of people who were sickened or killed by poisoned food.

With an effort at retaining consumer confidence in the event of a similar scare, Walmart has worked with IBM and Beijing's Tsinghua University to use blockchain to digitally track how pork products in China move. Walmart's experiment makes use of blockchain technology designed specifically for this purpose by the Hyperledger Project. This is an open source project that was based out of the Linux Foundation and which aims to create blockchain applications for non-cryptocurrency purposes.

From Barcodes to Digital Ledgers

Previously, many companies tracked their products via barcodes or radio ID tags. While this was a generally reliable way of monitoring food supply chains for a single company, it did not allow for multiple companies to easily access or share data. Blockchain, on the other hand, provides both accessibility in a broader sense as well as security. It is generally agreed that blockchain ledgers are less prone to fraud and inaccuracy than other types of ledger systems. This means that blockchains storing supply details like source, expiration date, shipping history, and more could be used to keep food safer and food information easier to track down. Walmart is betting that this will alleviate the risk of contamination outbreaks and that other companies will jump on board with the new technology. Of course, this remains to be seen, but early success by the retailer could inspire confidence in other brands.