Digital Receipts. Food Safety and Beyond.

In 2006 a devastating E Coli outbreak in the US resulted in the infection of 199 people in 28 states, 141 hospitalizations, and three deaths. Spinach was pulled from shelves nation wide, triggering a decrease in appetite for the vegetable that took years to fully recover. The economic impact was estimated to be more than $350 million. It took weeks to narrow the source down to a single farm. More recently in March of 2018, an E Coli outbreak from Romaine lettuce caused 197 infections across 35 states, resulting in 89 hospitalizations and 5 deaths. It took 3 months for authorities to trace the source back to the region of Yuma Arizona.

Tracing food back through the supply chain to it’s root is the primary problem in quickly finding the source of food born illness outbreaks. Federal rules require every member in a supply chain keep records of where it received and sent food. In the event of an illness outbreak, investigators have to contact suspect suppliers to track the history of the food. The recent Romaine E Coli outbreak proves that this system is broken. The use of paper records and lack of data standards make provenance difficult.

Food supply chains are composed of many different entities: growers, suppliers, processors, distributors, retailers, and consumers. A major challenge is interfacing between separate data silos kept by each member of the supply chain. Investigators might need to contact every supplier’s supplier along the chain until they get to the root source.

There are emerging efforts to enhance track and trace of goods through supply chains. 10 of the world’s biggest companies including Walmart, Nestle, Dole, Kroger, Tyson and others recently announced they are forming the Food Trust in collaboration with IBM to remake how the industry tracks food worldwide. The solution uses a new distributed database technology called blockchain (distributed ledger) to improve transparency, standardization and efficiency throughout the food supply chain. The focus is currently on preventing food contamination outbreaks exactly like the e-coli attacks outlined above.

The so-called Food Trust aims to improve recalls, quickly identifying the issue and shrinking the time consumers are at risk. Business benefits such as avoiding losses from overly broad food recalls are also expected…

…Mr. Yiannas, strolling the produce aisle of a Walmart Neighborhood Market store here on a recent morning, picks up a container of sliced mangoes. In a blockchain test last year, he says, his team traced a similar batch of mangoes from a Mexican orchard to a Walmart store in 2.2 seconds, Mr. Yiannas says.

IOT (internet of things) is a another novel technology that could enhance provenance by digitally identifying goods as finely grained as possible (using RFID tags for ex) and allowing verifiable data to be attached to those identities. IOT, blockchain, digital payments, and other emerging technologies will most likely have a positive systemic impact on supply chain traceability, however most of the effort is currently on the supplier side of the chain, with little talk of enabling end consumers. Digital receipts could make use of the digital data sharing infrastructure that is being built for business-to-business supply chain transparency and provide a huge help to consumers.

Take a deadly E Coli outbreak for example. The digital receipts of people contaminated with E Coli could be compared to each other to find common foods recently purchased. Once quickly narrowed down to the item, spinach say, the digital receipts would show exactly what farm it came from. Every member of the supply chain including retailers and consumers who bought lettuce from the contaminated lot could be notified immediately via their digital wallets. Only the lettuce from the contaminated lot would have to be recalled, preventing millions of dollars in foods waste. More importantly the faster and more precise response could save people from getting sick and dying.

The advantages to moving towards digital receipts extends beyond food safety into all commerce. The traditional benefits of keeping receipts would reap the rewards of digitization: proof of purchase, recalls, warranties, tax deductions, returns, company expense claims, verification of value (insurance, resale), and accounting/budgeting.

Digital receipts would bring new benefits to consumers as well. Whereas a paper receipt shows you the date, item description, and price, a digital receipt could show you anything you wanted to know about that product including transparency into provenance, materials, ingredients, certifications, and reviews.

Digital receipts offer a great advantage for reviews. Buyers could add reviews to specific items directly from their digital receipt. Reviews could also be left for merchants as well, since each receipt is linked to the merchant who issued it. These reviews could automatically be sent to the merchant, supplier, and any other member in the supply chain for that item. The merchant could enable these reviews to be visible to the public on their website or third party apps like Yelp.

Important information such as a detailed description of the product could be accessed before you purchase the good, by scanning a barcode, or from an online store. The benefit of receipts is that they are given automatically at point of purchase to be easily accessed at a later date. Another benefit of digital receipts is that they can be combined together and analyzed in a useful way. Average calorie intake. Food miles. Carbon footprint. Taxes paid. These calculations could all be done in the background and presented in a user friendly way.

Simply open an app on your phone to see a new receipt from the hemp seeds you just bought. Click into the item to see the full provenance including where and when they were grown. Also visible are test results for contaminates and a digital Organic certificate. All of this data would be digitally signed by the corresponding issuer. The farmer would sign off on the the harvest date and location, while the testing facility signs the test results, and the USDA Organic Agency would sign the Organic claim. Of course a claim could be mistaken or fraudulent, but the important part is that the attestation is signed by a digital signature of the issuer, providing accountability.

What about coupons? Are arm length CVS receipts necessary for coupons? Perhaps not, CVS is actually already offering digital receipts. Digital coupons could be easily attached to a digital receipt. It would be an improvement if all merchants offered digital receipts sent as an email. A bigger improvement would involve a standard for digital receipts so that you can access all your receipts in one location, from one app on your phone or a website on your computer.

The movement towards digital payments provides a natural foundation for digital receipts. Digital currencies might prove the best digital payment architecture for reasons including built in digital signatures, an immutable transaction history, low level programmability, and the ability to integrate with distributed ledgers (for ex the food tracking solution mentioned above). However, even current credit card systems could be used. Think of you’re online credit card statement except every transaction links to a Wikipedia-like-web of data.

By the way, did you know that thermal receipt paper contains Bisphenol A (commonly known as BPA), an endocrine disruptor known to be hazardous to human, fish and other animal reproductive systems? One extra reason to move towards digital receipts.

The key to bringing digital receipts to market will rely on the proper alignment of incentives. The trick is showing that digital receipts benefit all parties. Consumers benefit from having real time transparency into what they bought. Retailers benefit from less wasteful recalls. Suppliers benefit from consumer reviews. From farm to fork, digital receipts offer safe, ethical and conscious commerce.



Writing in service to life.

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