In this episode Dom caught up with Professor Chris Elliott OBE – a globally renowned expert in food fraud and has investigated the complexity of supply chain networks for more than 30 years.He has published more than 300 papers in the field of detection and control of chemical contaminants in agri-food commodities and co-ordinated one of the world’s largest research project in this area (www.BioCop.org). He also co-ordinated another major EU research project QSAFFE which is dealt with contaminant issues along the animal feed supply chain.
Chris led the UK government’s independent review of food systems following the 2013 Horsemeat scandal.He says a major issue for consumers is that we don’t really know what we’re eating. We don’t know where it comes from. And we don’t know how it’s produced. And because of all of those factors, there is a general mistrust about the food industry.
However developments in technology are beginning to change that, and a coalition of the good are using data and the blockchain to link up supply networks, enabling more visibility, and forensic investigations into any areas of concern. Increasingly this will make it harder for fraudsters to operate in the food sector, as any changes to a product in that blockchain are detected early.Companies not adopting this tech will be put under the spotlight and asked why. Why aren’t you getting on board, what have you got to hide. He admits when Kieran Kelly, the co-founder of ubloquity first raised the idea of blockchain seven years ago he hazed over! But over the years he has understood it is about digitising supply networks, joining it all together as blocks on the chain. And you can have multiple companies, multiple actors involved in the harvesting, in the manufacture, the processing, the transportation, the storage, joined up, helping bring them all together. Each of those actors in that supply chain network has a responsibility to input data, and once it’s in there, you can’t move it. It then greatly reduces the wriggle room for fraudsters, as you can’t claim to be doing something that actually you’re not because that information is on that blockchain.
Chris Elliott, Dom Burch
Dom Burch 00:09
Welcome back to the ubloquity podcast with me Dom Burch. This is the podcast where we get to speak to leaders and thought leaders I guess around the industry to talk about food provenance food safety, talk about blockchain, talk about the use cases actually of how we use this technology. And I’m delighted this week to be joined by Professor Chris Elliott, OBE from Queen’s University in Belfast. Now Chris has had a glittering career and published more than 300 papers in the field of detection and control of chemical contaminants in agri food commodities. He’s also coordinated one of the world’s largest research projects in the area and another major EU research project, dealing with contaminant issues. And of course, he led the government’s independent review of food systems following the 2013 horsemeat scandal, which Chris, as I was just saying to you off air, I remember that I can’t say I remember it necessarily fondly. But when I was head of PR at Asda, that was, that was a moment in time. Yeah. Thanks,
Chris Elliott 01:06
Dom, great to talk to you today. And I think for many people in the food industry, what happened in 2013 was really the wake up call in terms of, do we actually understand our supply chains? Do we understand that there’s a lot of bad actors out there? And do we understand how vulnerable as businesses we are to being cheated, and all of the reputational damage that goes without so the the wake up call of Wake Up Calls Dom.
Dom Burch 01:08
And it was almost like it was a simulation, it was one of those crisis that just kept on giving more each day. So we’d coming into the building, and I gosh, now Iceland has been implicated. And now it’s into lasagna. And you could just sense couldn’t you that was vast and everywhere, but no one could get their arms around it, you know, there was no one could put their finger on the button and go, this is where it started. And this is how we’re going to deal with it. It just felt like it was going to go on forever.
Chris Elliott 02:00
And I think that’s exactly right. And you’re in the in the early days of the horsemeat scandal, I was just a spectator, as many other people were, and what I knew in my own head, because I knew about the complexity of supply chains, and so forth, I just had the feeling this is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger and more people are going to be embroiled in the thing. And and the prediction was absolutely right. So many businesses impacted by by what was going on.
Dom Burch 02:31
Now, obviously, you’re director of the Institute for global food safety. And I was just sort of reminding myself for the four things, I guess that the industry is facing, as you know, as a sector. One is that there may not be enough food to feed the growing population of the planet. And obviously, you know, the implications of that. But the other bit that really interests me is this, the integrity of what is becoming a really increasingly complex food supply chain. You know, we go back 100 years and food was, I guess, relatively local, you kind of knew where it came from. It was built on trusting the butcher, or knowing the baker and all those things. And then through, you know, the, I guess, the huge explosion in manufacturing of food and the vastness of supermarkets, of which I know, well, those, those supply chains have become really complex, haven’t they?
Chris Elliott 03:19
We don’t know what we’re eating. We don’t know where it comes from. And we don’t know how it’s produced. And because of all of those factors, there is a general mistrust, mistrust from consumers about the food industry. In fact, going back a couple of years ago, people were thinking the food industry was something like the tobacco industry, and you know, out to make lots of money, not telling us, you know, a lot of the terrible things that were going on. And I always said, No, that is absolutely the wrong way to look at it. The food system, a global food system has become more and more complicated, more complex. And there’s lots of positives to that, because we can go into a supermarket and you know, park Brexit for a moment, and you know, I can have a rant about that. But in general, you can go into a supermarket, and we can buy, say fresh produce 365 days of the year, if you want oranges, if you want lemons, if you want bananas, it will be there year round. And that’s some of the great things about the global food supply system. But it’s that complexity. Often people talk about complex supply chains. First of all, I’ll tell you, there’s no such thing as a supply chain. There are supply networks. And we have mapped many of these networks and you would not believe how many actors are involved in getting that piece of food onto your plate. And and it’s a very, very opaque. Nobody really understands truly how complex these networks are until you really start to dig into it.
Dom Burch 04:54
I guess because of that complexity, food fraud is a crime, it is prevalent. And I guess the likelihood of that growing as an area where people can, you know, intercept if you like part of that network and start to bring in product that perhaps isn’t what it should be. So all of these things, I guess, are throwing up issues. Technology is beginning to become part of that solution in a way that perhaps wasn’t foreseeable back in the horsemeat era. And things like blockchain are now being touted as part of the answer, but it’s quite baffling blockchain for a lot of people to try and sort of conceptualise it and see it and get their head around it. How do you see technology’s role now in the in the near future, helping to solve some of these issues?
Chris Elliott 05:35
So first of all, food fraud, what what is food fraud, and as you say, it’s people setting out to cheat us, cheat other businesses. And there are a multitude of different ways that it can happen. I have another my expressions Dom, I often say criminals are stupid. And fraudsters are smart, because fraudsters tend not to be caught. And the complexity of the frauds is quite amazing. And we have investigated, many of them. And often, you know, it’s like you’re trying to build a wall wall to protect your company, a wall to protect your business and consumers and the fraudsters, they’ll find a way to go over it, they’ll find a way to get around it. Or if they can’t do that, they’ll find a way to go under it. How do we actually tackle what is large scale organised crime going on on a global basis, that that’s what food fraud is. Now in terms of technology, you know, I am a scientific anorak. And in my laboratory, we’ve got huge number of ways that we can look to see what is in food, what shouldn’t be there, and so forth. So I have to tell you that actually the founder of ubloquity, Kieran, came to me about I think it was about seven years ago and started to talk to me about blockchain. And and I just hazed over I couldn’t really understand what the guy was talking to me about. And then slowly but surely over the years and working with great guys like like Kieren, I really get to understand that it is about digitising these supply chains, these supply networks, joining it all together. So that’s the blocks of the chain. And you can have multiple companies, multiple actors involved in the harvesting, in the manufacture, the processing, the transportation, the storage, and it’s bringing them all together. And each of those actors in that supply chain network has to put up into the blockchain, lots and lots of information, lots of data. And once it’s there, you can’t move it and what other people can see in that chain, is that data. Now, when you start to do that, you’ve really greatly reduced the wriggle room of lots of people, you can’t claim to be doing something that actually you’re not because that information is on that blockchain. So it’s making it’s making life much more difficult for those who set out to check that digitization. But also, you have to think about how do you verify that that information in the blockchain is correct. And that’s another facet to the work that, you know, that we’ve been doing in terms of working with ubloquity in terms of how can you verify the data in this digital system is accurate and can be trusted?
Dom Burch 08:25
And how do you do that?
Chris Elliott 08:26
There’s a number of different techniques, now the first is quite basic, and it’s called mass balance. So Dom you are a banana company, and you produce 200 tonnes of bananas each year, okay? Now, if you’re putting that information onto the blockchain, and it adds up to 250 tonnes each year, somehow you’re cheating. Okay? That’s the first way mass balance, very basic stuff. But the second thing is, in terms of some of the stuff that I like to do that measurement analysis, can I take a scan of a particular foodstuff and say, yes, it’s genuine. This is where it was produced. This is when it was produced. We can look at the DNA we can say yes, it says particular species of animal. That data from the scientific testing can also get uploaded on to the blockchain as well. And where wherever you go along that particular supply network, that same sample can get get sub sampled and tested again, to make sure it’s exactly the same stuff. So that’s how you verify that the information on the blockchain can be relied upon.
Dom Burch 09:37
I sort of imagine it in sort of traffic light terms, right? If you didn’t have a network supply chain in food as an example, that was being monitored and verified and collected in this manner in this kind of blockchain manner. You’d almost say, Well, do you know what, that’s a kind of red on the traffic light system. If you did have it all on there, and you were proven over time I guess that that information was reliable. And every time you did do one of those tests, it came back with the right answer, you’re probably going to be kind of green. And then if you’re finding out that actually sometimes that information isn’t correct, and the weight of the animal was wrong, or the number of products going through, it wasn’t correct, or what ended up at the end for the consumer turned out to be a completely different sample of a different animal, then you’ve got, you know, the warning lights are going off.
Chris Elliott 10:23
Well, I mean, I think the the traffic light analogy is extremely good one, I think where we are going to, and at quite a fast pace at the moment is, if you’re not supplying your company information onto digital system, the question is, well, why? Why is it you don’t want to join in this technology revolution? And that question will be asked more and more and more, and also that traffic light that comes up amber. You know, there’s lots of reasons why there might be a misfit for information. Quite often, that’s human error, quite often somebody didn’t fill the form in right, but again, that can be verified quite easily. And that’s when you hit the red button, in terms of there is something really wrong here, then you can launch your proper investigation. And often that will mean that you’d have to bring in regulators into it often, things like the National Food Crime Unit in the UK, and similar units exist, right across Europe and other parts of the world now. So traffic light is absolutely a good analogy of what we can achieve using digital technologies.
Dom Burch 11:30
And I guess there’s two things going on as well isn’t there, in addition to that human error, I guess that human error is going to be negated over time, as more and more form filling becomes API driven. And therefore, you’ve got less, you know, data inputting, but actually give me the information at source. Let me plug it into the system. And actually, therefore, there’s no kind of having, you know, that thing where you’re mapping things, and you’re cutting and pasting, you know, all that stuff that we have to do that’s complex, border controls, product codes, you know, customs clearance, all these things are gradually going on, or even gradually, quite quickly, from now going to suddenly become automated.
Chris Elliott 12:06
We all make mistakes. My goodness, I was working on some spreadsheets last night and probably when I check them again, tonight, I’ll see that I had some transcriptional errors. But the more that we can automate, the more that we can use QR codes for extracting information, the better because that will absolutely reduce human error that will exist in all sorts of different businesses.
Dom Burch 12:27
And I guess it also allows the food crime authorities to be quite forensic then about focusing their efforts, you know, increasingly making it hard for the smart fraudsters if you like to operate within that blockchain network. Because, as you say, if you’re part of that network, the visibility then of all of the different elements is clear. And I guess, I guess it’s quite, you know, the data visualisation now also makes it quite user friendly.
Chris Elliott 12:51
And the mention of forensics is very good, because one of the ways that we set out to identify criminal activity in the food supply networks is forensic auditing, you know, because all of the information will sit in in ledgers somewhere. Now, if that sits in a digital ledger, as blockchain is, my goodness, the ability to analyse that data to really forensically look at it will be unbelievably strong. And again, huge deterrent in terms of people who want to cheat because that data will be there and can be interrogated much, much more easily than is the case if you if you’re working on, you know, this old paper based system.
Dom Burch 13:35
Now, the other opportunity, I guess, I’m imagining a farmer in County Antrim, right, who manages a beef herd and has a great quality product. And they’re facing all these headwinds, aren’t they, they’re facing the Brexit dilemma of actually getting that product across different borders, even into, you know, England and Scotland and Wales. They’re facing the climate challenge now that people are concerned, rightly concerned how much carbon it takes to produce one kind of food to another kind of food. But if you’ve got a great product, a premium product, actually using blockchain in this way, is one way of protecting the premium in it and enabling you to potentially reach other markets that at the moment just feel out of reach.
Chris Elliott 14:16
There is a huge amount of effort going on, you know, in many different parts of the agriculture and food industry, about reducing the carbon footprint, making sure the quality, the safety of all of that has produced is good. And you know, that is fantastic. And I call that the coalition of the good. Now, there is also the people who will try to piggyback on that Dom, the people who will say yes, we are sustainable, we’re we’re very green, and so forth. And actually, you know, there was a recent example where a very large company has been caught out, making lots of claims about sustainability. And that isn’t backed up by the data. This all comes back to trust again, you know, if you’re you using a valid system, if you can start to make those claims that can be verified, that’s the future particularly, I would say, you know, for agriculture industry, in not only Northern Ireland, but the island of Ireland, the UK, we’ve got a great farming community, we’ve got a great food processing, why not come together and show that, you know, what we’re doing together is the right thing. We understand the issues about climate change, and all the rest and sustainability. But do you know what we are open? Look at our information, we are doing things properly.
Dom Burch 15:34
Chris, what are your hopes for the future? You know, you’ve been in this sector now since the mid 80s. You know, you’re a global expert in this area, you must be able to see things that are coming over the horizon that others haven’t quite yet grasped, what are your hopes for the future because this feels like a very exciting time.
Chris Elliott 15:54
It is Dom. And you know, in my mind, the glass is half full, because we have those issues, as we talked about climate change, unbelievable impact on our planet, and that will drive food fraud. I have no doubt about that. The drive towards sustainability, that will drive more fraud by people making false claims. But you know what? The coalition of the good are doing things right? They’re they’re using the advances in science and technology to improve their systems, reduce their carbon footprint, and show that the opaque food system that is currently the case is going to become much more transparent. And the use of blockchain is a big big tool in that Dom.
Dom Burch 16:39
Well listen, Chris, Professor Chris Elliott, OBE, I should say let’s give you your formal Sunday title. Thank you so much for coming on to the ubloquity podcast. I can say as a as somebody who struggled to get my head around blockchain, just the way you’ve articulated it on the podcast today is really really helped illuminate it for me and shine a light on it. And the potential for this technology now is just absolutely unbelievable. So Chris, thank you so much for coming on.
Chris Elliott 17:03
Great to talk to you today Dom.