Europe's first food blockchain
A Carrefour team spent one year working in secret on creating a tamperproof database designed to render each stage involved in the production of a batch of foodstuffs transparent and accessible to consumers. Lifting the curtain on this pioneering project.
"They've done it!” was the title of an article in American magazine Business Week this spring, the day after Carrefour had launched its food blockchain. At the same time, giant US retailer Walmart was hard at work testing its own project. Meaning that at Carrefour, the seven members of the team that had been put together to develop and manage the blockchain project savoured the compliment. The conclusion of twelve months of relentless work.
It all began in early 2017. Over the last few years, a number of health scandals have shaken consumer confidence. What could be done to reassure people about the source and traceability of the food that they buy? Carrefour had its sights set on blockchain technology. A list of encrypted digital records, updated by its users, which resulted in the creation of the famous bitcoin currency – which itself emerged from a crisis in confidence in banks. What if it were possible to apply this same technology to the food sector?
Emmanuel Delerm, a project management specialist at Carrefour, broke new ground alongside two specialist firms – Crystalchain and Connecting Food. He set up an internal unit made up of five IT specialists. "We have a pioneering culture", emphasised Emmanuel Delerm. "We wanted this blockchain to be a Carrefour product".
Three months later, the small team were clear about which technology they wanted to adopt: Ethereum, "which was the most stable at the time". They'd also decided which food product they were going to test their project on: Auvergne free-range chicken. The epitome of the family product – found in all fridges.
Gathering the evidence
The team then had to gather the traceability evidence that consumers wanted. But then, the plot started to thicken: "There was evidence, but it was fragmented and dispersed among our partners. It took us two weeks to gather it altogether in a variety of different formats – sometimes on paper", explained the project director before emphasising that now, it only takes a few minutes.
At Carrefour, Séverine Fountain knows the Poultry Quality Line inside out: she is in charge of it. She knows the network of livestock farmers with whom Carrefour has entered into partnerships – some of which are more than twenty years old – like the back of her hand. She understands the production requirements to which they adhere and which go way beyond regulatory standards.
She joined the team, which decided to go out into the field and meet everybody involved in producing Auvergne free-range chickens: the livestock breeders' union, the feed factory, the vet, the abattoir and the processor, Marc Saulnier, managing director of Arrivée Auvergne.
As Emmanuel Delerm remembers: “Carrefour had come to talk to them about a blockchain project… Initially, some of them were a little anxious. But they quickly realised that this initiative actually showcased their efforts".
Yves de la Fouchardière, managing director of the Loué Farmers’ cooperative and one of Carrefour's eggs suppliers, instantly join the initiative: "Creating high-quality products – that's what we have been committed to for 60 years! This project is what we have needed all this time to show consumers how we work".
Meanwhile, in Massy (on the outskirts of Paris) at the Carrefour France head office, the five IT specialists were tethered to their computers. They downloaded the Ethereum database, and got it running in Carrefour's cloud storage facility. They developed the platform, and started coding the data to be checked by independent bodies, rendered tamperproof.
In the summer of 2017, they started the first tests, and a survey was carried out in stores to find out exactly what consumers wanted. In September, they got to work on developing "smart contracts" – applications which generate contracts if previously-determined conditions have been met – and put the finishing touches on the Internet portal's ergonomic design. There was no way they were going to compromise on security, but neither were they going to build a system that was impossible to use for the various parties involved in the chain.
Mid-February 2018, Emmanuel Delerm and his team were close to completion. A charter was signed by all the partners involved in the Auvergne Quality Line free-range chicken and the final technical tests proved conclusive. What was initially intended as an experiment became Europe's first fully functional food blockchain. It was unveiled to consumers in March 2018 in the form of a simple QR Code on the chicken's packaging.
The blockchain pioneers at Carrefour breathed a sigh of relief, but as Emmanuel Delerm said to himself: "The first product was the most straightforward". We still have to add Cauralina cored tomatoes, Loué farmhouse eggs, PDO Rocamadour cheese and Norwegian salmon between now and the autumn, and then Auvergne fattened chicken and Spanish oranges (to be confirmed by Carrefour) before Christmas. By 2022, blockchain technology will be used with all 100 Carrefour Quality Line products in France.