In light of the recent revelations surrounding the use of horsemeat as an illegal substitute for beef, Swiss radio station RTS decided to investigate what might have been done to prevent it. In an interview with our illustrious Co-Founder and CTO Dominique Guinard, journalist Coralie Claude posed the question: How could technology have prevented this from happening?
The answer is quite simple. The solution already exists and involves giving every food product it’s own unique digital identity. This is done by tagging each individual product (using tag technologies like RFID/NFC or QR codes) and recording a combination of ‘tracking’ and ‘fingerprint’ data relating to that tagged product. This happens not within the tag itself, but in a secure and centralized online information server, like the EVRYTHNG Engine.
Tracking data or product journey data would be collected whenever a product tag was read at various points in a supply chain, the tags could then provide visibility surrounding who was responsible for the product, at which point, and at what time. Tampering with this data would be extremely difficult and involve every member of the supply chain being in on the hack!
Indeed this form of tracking already takes place within the EPC (Electronic Product Code) network: a global network of connected objects, tracked through the supply chain using RFID tags, that is already being used by the likes of Metro and Wallmart.
The problem with this process however is that currently the collected data is only stored on closed systems. For this tracking data to actually be valuable it needs to be available on the web and accessible by users.
Fingerprint data or product metadata would involve storing information in a centralized and authoritative information system accessible via the tag unique identifier. This information would directly correspond to the product itself. For example: illicit activity would be clearly evident if, when read, a products tag displayed data relating to Premium South American Fairtrade coffee beans yet the product itself was actually a low value coffee bean mix.
Not only would fingerprint data highlight any violation of a product, but the tracking data would further hold the supply chain accountable, making it possible to discover exactly where the violation took place. Again, if fingerprint data is actually going to be useful it needs to be available on the web, preferably alongside tracking data, and accessible by users.
So if this is all possible, why doesn’t it exist?
Technologically it does exist (EPC net / GS1 etc), it just didn’t take off. For three main reasons:
Reluctance to share data – the more companies share their data the more transparent they become, and businesses don’t always see this as preferable or beneficial.
Consumer paranoia – the unfounded fear that in tracking a product so too, by proxy, would the owner of that product be tracked. This is not the case because products can only be tracked when their tags are read at a specific point e.g. the factory, the haulage depot, the supermarket. Plus, our phones are much bigger tracking devices than any RFID tag.
No end-user benefit – tagging products had numerous benefits within the supply chain but no appeal to the end user, the consumer.
So what’s the answer?
We’ve already talked about the effective and accessible storage of both tracking and fingerprint data, but more crucially the answer lies in making this data useful outside of the existing supply chain parameters: making it useful to the citizen consumer.
The way to do this is by making it possible for 3rd parties to create mobile and Web applications which let consumers access digital information and services based on real, live product data, and to do this based on those products having unique, trackable and traceable digital identities on the Web.
The EPC Mashup prototype we worked on is an example of what this could look like in the (near) future. Built together with the AutoID labs at MIT / Zurich, SAP Research and the University of Fribourg, this prototype is based on an open-source module that makes global tracking data and EVRYTHNG product metadata available through a Web (REST) API. Hence, all tagged products get an Active Digital Identity in the form of a URL that can be linked to; exchanged in emails; browsed for; bookmarked etc.
As for the horsemeat scandal, it would have been far less likely to happen if consumers had been able to access information about their products. And consumers interacting with their products has even more exciting possibilities beyond just finding out a products history. Once a product has it’s own digital identity online many other helpful digital tools can be attached to it to benefit both the consumer – such as product personalization and loyalty rewards – and the brand, such as real-time data analytics about how that product is made, sold and used.
A consumer would not only be able to see that their beef burger is a burger made of actual beef, but they’d be able to, for example, deconstruct their burger virtually to see it’s overall calorie content (including the extra nacho sauce); access related food recipes and recommendations or special offers direct from the brand, and so on.
The brand, in addition to the supply chain benefits, would have direct lines of communication with their consumers enabling them to not only access real time analytics surrounding how their products are used and by whom, but also to build an ongoing, one-to-one relationship with their customers.
The possibilities, for consumers, brands and the wider community, that stem from products having their own unique identities on the Web are endless, you’d think there would be companies out there already doing this… oh, wait a minute… 😉