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Tech Lab | Hiawatha Bray

From ocean to table, via blockchain

Mac Hay (left), owner of Mac's Seafood, and Robert Campbell (right), of Jamaica, at Mac’s Seafood Market in Wellfleet, MA. Fish markets are the final link in the blockchain records.Julia Cumes for the Boston Globe

Ever wonder where your next meal is coming from? A Massachusetts fishing company will soon be able to show diners at a restaurant chain in California exactly where and when the seafood on their plates was harvested, in some cases even showing video of scallops being hauled out of the sea.

“They can watch it as we catch it,” said Dan Eilertsen, owner of Nordic Inc., which operates six scallop boats based in New Bedford. “The whole story about the product you’re eating will be right in front of you.”

Nordic Inc. and its distributor, Raw Seafoods Inc. of Fall River, are deploying Food Trust, a system from IBM Corp. that captures detailed information about food production from harvest to table. Now the companies are about to share this information with the consumers who feast on their products — and scallops are just the start.

Food Trust essentially creates a digital tag for each step of the food production process, the data forming a complete biography of every bite we eat, down to each ingredient in a package of processed food. A consumer with a smartphone could someday scan the barcode on a bottle of hot sauce, and find out when and where the peppers were grown or the vinegar was distilled.


It’s already started at French grocery chain Carrefour, which operates stores throughout Europe, China, Africa, and South America. Carrefour customers can use a phone app to find detailed information about two dozen items, including chicken, eggs, oranges, pork, and cheese; Carrefour plans to add about 100 more items by the end of 2019.

In the United States, early Food Trust adopters are mostly using it internally, to track inventory and monitor freshness. Giant US grocery chains such as Walmart, Kroger, and Albertsons have signed on, as have a number of food suppliers such as Swiss-based Nestle, pork producer Smithfield Foods, and distributor Golden State Foods. An IBM spokesperson said that Nordic and Raw Seafoods will be among the first US users of Food Trust to deliver food data to consumers.


The experiment begins in November, at TAPS Fish House & Brewery, a four-restaurant chain based in Brea, Calif. A special barcode will appear on the menu next to the restaurant’s scallop dishes. Tom Hope, TAPS’ director of food and beverage, said customers who scan the code with a smartphone will see the day and date of the scallop harvest.

Seafood is tracked from the boat, with latitude and longitude data, vessel and crew information. IBM Photos

But Nordic and Raw Seafoods plan to go further, occassionally shooting video on Nordic’s fleet as the catch is brought on boat. A customer could see video of scallops being caught and a photograph of the boat’s captain. Eilertsen said his crews are even shooting videos of rolling seas and frolicking dolphins to add ambience.

It’s all made possible by blockchain, the technology that underlies digital currencies such as Bitcoin. A blockchain is an immense string of data, each digital tag along the food chain, as it were, adding to the string. The information is stored in an encrypted database that is dispersed across hundreds or thousands of computers. A blockchain can be easily updated with new data, and because it’s encrypted and widely distributed, it’s virtually tamperproof.

Fishing on the open sea is hard, dangerous work, with little time to punch data into computers. Food Trust makes it easy. The name of the person on watch — the captain or the mate — is punched in once, at the start of each shift. After that, the fishermen just start bagging and tagging.


Every time a bag hits the scales, a computer records the date and time of the catch, the boat’s latitude and longitude, and of course the weight — generally around 50 pounds each bag. There’s no need for a worker to enter data by hand; it’s all collected automatically from the boat’s GPS system, which acts as clock and calendar as well as a navigator. All this information is uploaded to the blockchain via satellite radio. A fisherman slaps a label onto each bag, with a barcode that links it to the recorded data.

Once at the processing house, workers add still more detail: the arrival time of the catch, for instance, or when the scallops are packed into cans, or stacked into a freezer. Scallops bound for TAPS Fish House will go to a West Coast distributor, Santa Monica Seafood, which adds yet more data to the string — the arrival time of each package, and the restaurant or retailer buying it.

Dan McQuade, Raw Seafoods’ vice president of marketing, said the Food Trust blockchain could break the back of seafood fraud. That’s where companies obtain cheap varieties of fish at low prices, then mislabel the catch and sell at a higher price.


“When you go into a restaurant and you order red snapper,” said McQuade, “are you getting red snapper?”

Seafood makes its way to a processor, where data such as size, pack date, and shipment data demonstrate freshness and authenticity. Here, scallops are processed at Raw Seafoods in Fall River.IBM Photos

Quite possibly not. In a test conducted this year, the ocean advocacy foundation Oceana found that 20 percent of the seafood it purchased in US stores was mislabeled. In 2016, the Grocery Manufacturers Association estimated that seafood fraud may cost US consumers up to $15 billion a year. If restaurants and retailers only buy seafood that’s verified by its blockchain history, it would become far harder to perpetrate such fraud. Switching labels won’t help, because the phony code on the label won’t match the data in the blockchain.

Food Trust could also make it far easier to get tainted food out of circulation. Within hours, every retail chain in America could determine whether they’d purchased infected lettuce or ground beef, just by checking the blockchain.

Already, Food Trust has helped Nordic clean up one problem with its scallops. When Raw Seafoods sent some samples to the TAPS restaurant chain, Tom Hope wasn’t happy.

“A couple of scallops had some sand in them,” he said, “which was totally unacceptable.”

Eilertsen of Nordic looked up those scallops on the blockchain. “We were able to trace it back to the exact boat,” he said. An inspection revealed that the boat’s scallop washing machine had a faulty impeller that didn’t force enough clean water through the system.

It was a simple fix for Eilertsen, and good news for Hope, who’s looking forward to serving up New Bedford scallops.


“They were amazing tasting,” he said, “apart from the sand.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.