Blockchain: A New Quality Guarantee for Food and Wine?

It’s harder than ever to ensure quality assurance in consumables, but technology that sits behind Bitcoin could put an end to “staged authenticity”, improving food traceability and provenance for food and tourism operators across the supply chain.  Umberto Mecchi, from Mecchinism explains how.

I recall sitting in my Tourism Marketing class in 1994 when the batteries to my Sony Walkman died in the middle of Ace of Base’s – “Sign”. Ironically it was a “sign” because I was forced to pay attention in that very class and I’m glad I did because that day the lecturer discussed the notion of “Staged Authenticity” in Tourism which is a central theme to this article.

What is staged authenticity?

The term “staged authenticity” is one used by tourism and cultural resource management researchers to define a way that traditional cultures are presented (i.e. staged) to outsiders. It can be manufactured by tourism professionals (such as in theme parks and special performances), but it can also be the way that locals perceive what tourists want to see and experience – like tartan, bagpipes and whisky in Scotland.  Real life and culture is often hidden or relegated to areas that tourists are not likely to venture.

Staged authenticity was really brought home to me when I was studying in Thailand.  Our professor encouraged us to immerse ourselves in the day-to-day of Bangkok and rely less on the American breakfast and burger bars at our hotel.

So, one Friday afternoon a few of us decided to visit the outskirts of Bangkok for lunch.   As bold as brass, we set out to eat the most exotic Thai noodles we could find. We found a concrete cavity venue hosted by a small, charming man working the noodle trolley with chicken guts, feet, and whatever else hanging on rails above boiling chicken broth.

We all ordered the Chef’s Choice – a mystery bowl of who knows what – immersed in thin angel hair noodles.  As we sat at our bench with brave (although undeniably regretful faces), I peered into a back storage room where an old wooden door, barely hanging on its hinges, was slightly ajar.  To my dismay, I saw a stock room with boxes floor to ceiling stamped “Maggi Noodles”.  This was staged authenticity at its finest and I was duped.

It’s now 2019 and a lot has changed.  Tourism consumers continue to seek authentic or unique tourism and hospitality experiences.  We are also seeing a stronger consumer shift and heightened awareness to macro issues such as climate change, sustainable practices and an increasing lack of institutional trust in corporations.

The other obvious change has been the pervasive nature of technology and the impact it has had on reshaping industries and the way they deliver and promote products and services to market.  In fact, the technology that sits behind Bitcoin could put an end to “staged authenticity” and improve food traceability and provenance for food and tourism operators across the whole supply chain.

If you’re in food production or manufacturing and haven’t come to grips with blockchain (or distributed ledger technology [DLT]),  now is the time to do so.  There is a growing fascination around DLT and its power to transform the way we do business.

What is Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT)?

DLT technology is a way of storing and sharing information across a network of users in an open virtual space. It allows users to look at all transactions simultaneously and in real-time. The World Economic Forum defines blockchain as a “shared, programmable, cryptographically secure and therefore trusted ledger which no single user controls and which can be inspected by anyone”.

In the food supply chain, information is digitally connected to a food product and entered into the distributed ledger at every step of its journey. This could include farm-origination details, batch numbers, processing data, factory information, expiration dates, storage temperatures and shipping details.

All members of the network agree on the information captured in each transaction, which is assigned a digital certificate. This then becomes a permanent record that cannot be altered. Therefore, DLT has the potential to bring trust and authenticity back to the food industry and, by extension, the tourism and hospitality experience.

Food processors and manufacturers often struggle to validate the origin of their ingredients. If consumers are to trust in the quality and provenance of any food product, the processor must be able to provide detailed information about what’s in it and how it was made.

DLT allows the grower and processor to share information with each other privately and securely, while also having the supply chain validate this information. In other words, it provides a Web-of-Trust system that allows network participants to evaluate and validate assertions made about food, including origins, dietary claims, sustainability, and so forth.

Just imagine, you go to a restaurant and hold up your smartphone to capture an image of the menu. You post the image to your favourite social media feed (as you always do!). But while looking at the image, you’re automatically presented with an augmented reality view with information, icons, and links for each item listed on the menu. You notice the wines available. They’re from your favourite region, the vintage is listed.  

You click deeper and discover who the winemaker is, the viticulturist’s experience, and then the precise location – even down to a few square metres within a small five-acre vineyard. The producer has tracked and traced every stage of the wine making process: from how the fruit was grown, the environmental conditions, what time of day it was hand harvested, the origins of the oak barrels, the source of the bottles– every detail required to make your exact, specific bottle of wine. You open a video from the overlay and an interactive data visualisation shows the climatic conditions in the vineyard. In fact, every vineyard, winemaking and cellar activity that went into the production and delivery process is displayed.

You discover that, this wine in your glass is entirely natural; with no additives or blends from any other site. It’s hand tended, made with full bunches, bottle aged, and kept in a temperature controlled environment at a constant 16 degrees for 38 months. Last Friday, it was sent directly from the vineyard to the restaurant you’re now sitting in. Knowing exactly where this bottle comes from, how it was produced,and how it came to be in your hands, provides assurance and confidence about the integrity and quality of the product.

916 Pinot Noir case study

This is already a reality for a small, premium winemaking brand in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. While smart phone image recognition is not  far away, 916 Pinot Noir has already developed a system which enables consumers to validate their purchase using a serial number. The system also includes other tamper-proof protection devices to ensure the wine is the genuine product when it reaches the hands of the consumer.

And that’s just wine at one particular location. The possibilities to authenticate all products and services, whether it be a single restaurant location, rural town, state or country are endless and beneficial for food and tourism brands.

When quality is undeniable it gives operators and corporations a greater social licence and “permission” to charge a higher price for the product. This advantage allows the setting of premium or more reflective pricing and also redistributes income fairly to all players of the supply chain, including farmers.

DLT technology has the potential to transform the food industry by making food traceable from farm to fork. We are already seeing some leading organisations  like seeking to help industries authenticate their offerings.

The right customer service and communication technologies can transform customer experience. For advice tailored to your business contact Natalie to organise a free consultation.

Photography credit: Mike Emmett from RedFishBlueFish