In this unprecedented time with the worldwide impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, securing food safety by leveraging new technologies is more crucial than ever for food supply chains. On June 17th, 2020, AmCham China Technology and Innovation Initiative and our Digital Circle partner, Mars China, co-hosted a webinar focusing on From Farm to Table: Food Safety Empowered by Technology. Experts from Mars Global Food Safety Center, Merck China Innovation Hub, Walmart Food Safety Collaboration Center, IBM China Development Laboratory, and Danone China joined the event to discuss the impact of new technologies on the whole value chain of food production, together with around 100 audience members from varied sectors. AmCham China President Alan Beebe and Mars China Vice President of Public Affairs, AmCham China Board of Governor Min Qin also attended this webinar.  

“Never has there been a more important time to focus on how we deliver safe food, and how we can continue to transform capabilities and to deliver safe food efficiently, effectively and consistently to the people that need it most,” said Dr. Abigail Stevenson, Director of Mars Global Food Safety Center, in her keynote speech. She mentioned one of the key obstacles faced by companies when delivering safe food is to track their origins and traces, as unsafe food knows no borders in this globalized world. The solution against the threats to food safety is using new technologies in every part of the supply chain. Intelligent agriculture is transforming the lives of farmers and suppliers as well as the industry of food manufacturing as a whole. Big data analysis and blockchain are helping with traceability and transparency across the supply chain from farm to table. Genome sequencing is used to predict and prevent food safety incidents. As for food integrity, new technologies such as fingerprinting are creating specific fingerprints for raw materials from a specific geographical region or a particular species. Mars Global Food Safety Center collaborates with other industry partners or institutions such as Oxford Nanopore, Cornell University, and the University of Georgia to conduct fundamental research and build capability through training in order to address the challenges of providing safe food with the collective wisdom.

In the following panel discussion, the industrial experts shared their insights on the impact of COVID-19, the role of innovative technologies, and the development trends of the entire food supply chain with the context of a global downturn. William Watts, Senior Director of the Walmart Food Safety Collaboration Center, elaborated on his understanding of innovation trends in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which put pressure on global food supply chains and exacerbated some underlying weaknesses that can and should be addressed through innovation. He struck an optimistic tone, noting that in both the West and the East often periods of crises and turmoil were followed by golden ages of innovation. Instead of ushering in brand new technologies, COVID-19 is a trend accelerator and will enhance the value proposition for businesses to adopt and invest in technologies to enhance food safety whether through technologies like blockchain, robotic automation, the internet of things (IoT), etc. Tools that build trust across food supply chains will become especially important to “digitally shrink” the gaps between supply chain collaborators as well as between retailers and consumers while accelerating a more predictive food system. Watts also made a call to action for companies and innovators of all sizes in the audience to participate in the Walmart Food Safety Collaboration Center supported Global Food Safety Innovation, which launched in 2017 and aims to fast-track the most promising new ideas in food safety innovation through an annual innovation competition.

Junwei Zhao, CTO of IBM China Development Laboratory, also agreed that trust was a key. “In regards to coping with trust issues such as accessing data and reconciling differences between companies, IBM’s answer is blockchain,” IBM predicts that blockchain and crypto anchor will be applied at a large scale to address the global fraud problem. IBM contributed its open blockchain codebase to Hyperledger Fabric, an open-source project under Linux Foundation in 2016, and now it has become the most popular blockchain platform widely adopted in banking, healthcare, and other industries. IBM also built a fully trusted solution based on the blockchain platform with curated value for all the stakeholders in the ecosystem. Since 2016, Walmart has teamed up with IBM to create a food traceability system based on IBM trust technology.

Sophie Sun, Managing Director of Merck China’s Innovation Hub and Vice President of Strategy & Transformation, elaborated Merck’s comprehensive efforts in food safety assurance, including developing clean meat, which brings food to consumers’ table from lab instead of farm. As a source of alternative protein, clean meat addresses the challenges of pollution and farmland scarcity while providing clear traceability. Merck also provides microbiological testing for the entire production line to ensure the quality of food products. Collaborating with tech startups and many other partners, Merck’s Innovation Network is actively exploring new technologies such as blockchain, AI, and IoT that are dedicated to improving human progress in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

In addition to Danone’s innovative application of blockchain and next-generation sequencing, Danone China’s Food Safety Director Jie Xu also shared his insights in collective intelligence and open collaboration in the industry. Besides standardizing testing data and building models, collaborative databases were created leveraging artificial intelligence and big data, with which different companies in the industry can be connected together to share and contribute to the database.

“There is a great promise in technology shaping the future of food safety and global supply chain. The current situation and COVID-19 pandemic provide us an opportunity to really reflect on what we are doing, and what technologies we really need to deal with those major challenges to our society. Now more than ever, innovation and collaboration are the keys to ensure safe food for all.” concluded Dr. Guangtao Zhang, Head of Research at Mars Global Food Safety Center, who moderated the panel discussion with active audience interaction.

About AmCham China Tech and Innovation Initiative

Launched in 2018, AmCham China Technology and Innovation Initiative is an insight and collaboration platform designed to help our members and their organizations navigate and take advantage of the impact of disruptive technologies, such as AI, Blockchain, Internet of Things, AR/VR, etc. The Initiative aims to bring together a diverse, cross-sector community of companies applying technologies to innovate in order to share best practices, showcase American technology and innovation at work in China, and deepen relationships between technology providers and adopters. The Digital Circle partners play a leadership role in the AmCham China community to help define activity and policy priorities for the T&I Initiative.

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