The farm-to-table movement has been growing over the past several decades. Many individuals want to know where their food comes from and whether it's been ethically grown or raised. Labels touting "grass-fed beef" or "cage-free eggs" are commonplace in supermarkets across the US.
Turkey became a larger part of the movement in 2017 when Cargill, the Minnesota-based corporation behind the Honeysuckle White turkey brand, piloted a blockchain solution allowing consumers to trace their birds from farm to fork. The company said it was offering the "first-ever traceable turkeys," available primarily at Texas retailers. With a distributed ledger full of immutable records, the program can help "shape the food system of the future and deliver on consumers' desire for transparency in food," according to Debra Bauler, chief information officer of Cargill Protein and Salt.
The Program's Expansion
This year, Cargill has expanded its project to include more Honeysuckle White farmers and to make more traceable turkeys available for purchase during the 2018 holiday season. Over 70 family farms (located in Missouri and Texas) are participating in the program, whereas during last year's pilot, only four participated; there will be over 200,000 fresh, traceable turkeys available versus 60,000 in 2017; and Cargill maintains that one-third of all of 2018's fresh turkeys will be traceable, opposed to last year's 5 percent.
The traceability program relies on the Hyperledger Sawtooth blockchain platform, which uses a lottery-based consensus mechanism called proof of elapsed time (PoET). Although the underlying infrastructure is built upon blockchain technology, the interface itself is simple and involves consumers sending a text or entering a code online to view the history of their turkeys. A consumer has access to the farm's location (state and county), the farm's "story," farm photos, and a message from the farmer.
The information, stored on an immutable ledger, allows consumers to track turkey provenance down to the farm level, though the benefit of such a program relies on a truly decentralized system. In other words, the trustless nature of the program (or the accuracy of the recorded information) relies on a robust blockchain. However, Hyperledger Sawtooth's PoET consensus mechanism, although implemented by various institutions, was created by Intel, meaning users must trust Intel's word that the validation process is secure and equitable. A barcode-based system could conceivably work just as well if the blockchain framework were, hypothetically, not able to provide veracious data.
Blockchain and Turkey Are Both Popular
According to the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, 5.319 billion pounds of turkey have been consumed in the US this year as of November. The National Turkey Federation adds that consumption of the bird has more than doubled since 1970. With the popularity of this type of poultry, it's unsurprising that one of the biggest names in the turkey industry, Cargill, is leveraging one of the most popular contemporary technologies, blockchain, to expand its commitment to food transparency.
Considering the expansion of the traceable turkey program and the farm-to-table movement more generally, a scene from the sketch-comedy show Portlandia comes to mind wherein two characters at a restaurant are so invested in the life of a chicken (named Colin) they are about to eat that they eventually decide to visit the farm where Colin was raised. The scene may be hyperbolic, but it speaks to the growth of the ethically sourced food movement.
In the case of the Honeysuckle White blockchain-based traceability program, consumers won't be visiting the farms where the turkeys were raised, but they can get darn close by seeing pictures of the farms and the environments the turkeys lived in. Whether Cargill was the company to make the move or not, it was only a matter of time before turkeys were put on the blockchain.
Update (11/14/2018): This article has been updated with clarifying information about the traceable turkey program's blockchain platform, Hyperledger Sawtooth, and the consensus mechanism PoET. The designation of "fresh" was also added to describe the traceable turkeys, which accounts for the mathematical discrepancy in Cargill's statistics that was brought up in an earlier version of this article. Lastly, the 70 participating family farms were identified as being located in Missouri and Texas.