Innovation & Trends

Blockchains enter battle against botanical adulteration & contamination

One of the biggest challenges in any form of agriculture or botany is demonstrating authenticity – traceability – a challenge that has only been heightened by the Coronavirus pandemic. In a world where knowledge-thirsty consumers possess an ever-increasing array of apps and tools to scrutinise supply chains and corporate social responsibility (CSR) actions, traceability and transparency is vital. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed herbal supply chains under great strain as consumers and practitioner demand for immunity and wellness-linked botanicals has boomed all over the world, coupled with raw materials trade restrictions.

A Nutrition Business Journal scan of Amazon US customers in early April found over half increased their use of supplements because of the Coronavirus. In China, data revealed something like 90% of those who developed COVID-19 symptoms turned to Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCMs), while hospitals were prescribing TCMs alongside conventional medicines.

Buoyant demand is obviously a good problem for the botanicals sector to have but supply-side strains can provoke economically motivated adulteration of the supply chain with low-quality and fraudulent botanical extracts. 
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As Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC) and founder and director of the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) observed:
“In more than 45 years in the botanical industry, I have seen cases in which supply shortages of specific botanicals led to an increase in adulterated material in the US and global markets.”
And so it remains the case today. In all scenarios the fundamental challenge remains the same:

  • How to reliably demonstrate where seeds, crops and plant matter come from; how they are grown and processed; and what inputs have been used along the way in a way that people both inside and outside the industry can understand quickly and concisely? 

  • How can botanical products show they are free of “areas of concern” as the Food Supplements Europe (FSE) trade group puts it? Aside from adulteration with other species, contamination with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium, mycotoxins, PCBs, PAHs, irradiation, other fumigants and solvent residues are all issues in the global botanicals trade.

Momentum to tackle these concerns is building from powerful quarters such as initiatives under the Food Safety Modernization Act in the US which calls for, among other things, “tech-enabled traceability.” Improved botanicals traceability aligns with broader EU targets outlined in its recent EU Green Deal/Farm to Fork strategy which states, “There is an urgent need to reduce dependency on pesticides and antimicrobials, reduce excess fertilisation, increase organic farming, improve animal welfare, and reverse biodiversity loss.”

Innovative agricultural methods like controlled vertical farming and technologies such as blockchain are drivers for such shifts to cleaner, greener, healthier botanical offerings with more precise input and process control, measurement and transparency. But it doesn’t come easy.

Botanicals quality: ‘A horrible track record’

Most reputable botanicals players acknowledge the market damage caused by adulteration and clumsy and imperfect herbal extraction – and how difficult these practices are to wipe out.  

As Roy Upton, the founder, president and editor of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) told Natural Products Insider in 2019: 
“Botanical extracts have a horrible track record for quality. Many do not look anything like the constituent profile of the whole herb under the guise of being ‘specially extracted,’ when in actuality, what is being sold are very weak extracts, with a handful of seminal exceptions.”  

Traceability requirements may be spelled out in various food or pharma legal regimes around the world like the Global GAP and FSSC 22000, backed by a range of third party testing services and programs, but not all players abide by them either by intention or otherwise. Economically motivated adulteration is unfortunately a far too common problem among many of the 3000 or so botanicals that form the global trade, fostered by gaps in traceability.

As Blumenthal puts it, “a key aspect of adulteration is concealment and lack of transparency. If an ingredient is marketed in a fully transparent manner, it is seldom adulterated, by definition.”

The scale of the problem – in terms of both adulteration and contamination – has been highlighted by research published late in 2019 in the journal Frontiers of Pharmacology which involved DNA testing of 6000 botanical end-products in 37 countries. More than a quarter did not meet their label claims with great variance between regions: Australia (79% did not meet label claims), South America (67%), Europe (47%), North America (33%), Africa (27%) and Asia (23%).

“Our results confirm the large-scale presence of adulterated herbal products throughout the global market,” said lead researcher Dr Mihael Cristin Ichim from the Romanian National Institute of Research and Development for Biological Sciences.  “The adulterated herbal products contain undeclared contaminant, substitute, and filler species, or none of the labelled species, which all may be accidental or intentional, economically-motivated and fraudulent.”  
Aside from the fact many of these herbals are compromised efficacy-wise if adulterated with inferior extracts, contaminated products can be dangerous to human health and frequently interact poorly with pharmaceuticals an individual may be taking. 

Adverse events linked to contaminated botanicals have included meningitis, organ failure, stroke, arsenic, lead or mercury poisoning, malignancies or carcinomas, nephrotoxicity, renal or liver failure, intracerebral hemorrhage and even death. 

When framed in this light the human cost of contamination is appalling. 
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Better botanical traceability: Supply chains on blockchain

So what advances are permitting the sector to better deal with these concerns?

Blockchains are emerging ever-larger on the food security radar for their potential to take traceability to new levels and new places – consumer smartphones for example. They have already proven effective in the COVID-19 crisis, for example being used to publicise conditions in facilities within in the food industry

While analysts like Gartner predict 80% of supply chain blockchain initiatives will remain at proof-of-concept (POC) or pilot stage until at least 2022, the space is fast becoming congested with players of all sizes from Big Computing firms like IBM and Oracle to a plethora of start-ups and other outfits. Gartner said many firms’ supply chains were stuck in an “analog world” and missing out on the game-changing potential of distributed legers to provide trustworthy, highly visible and accessible tracking tools. Existing tracing technologies like bar, QR or RFID codes can provide information about where a product has been but the problem is that data is rarely available to consumers. A live blockchain offers the potential for live updates about any product or process available 24-7 to a broad public, if so desired.

Such data can become a competitive edge for products among a growing consumer base hungry for the information and at ease with the tech to get it – especially if it is free.
An example is Nestlé which employed a Chinese blockchain developer called Techrock to make supply chain data publicly available via an app for its NAN A2 baby formula in the wake of infant formula adulteration scandals that had killed babies, adversely affected the health of hundreds of thousands more and shattered caregiver confidence in Chinese-made infant formula. Caregivers have reportedly responded positively to the app and the blockchain info it puts at their fingertips. 

Another is Dutch NGO Fairfood’s Trace platform which uses blockchains to place supply chain data for the likes of coffee and turmeric in both producer and consumer hands. “What we really like about technologies such as blockchain is that it requires a ‘virtual handshake’…of data,” Fairfood director Sander de Jong told FoodNavigator. “And farmers, no matter how far away they are, can give their digital ‘thumbs up’ to verify important information.”
While blockchains can offer tamper-proof transparency from seed to shelf, they are only as good as the data inputted into them, something platforms like Trace attempt to tackle via ‘transaction requests’ that are matched with product claims at every ‘node’ of the supply chain. Such nodes could include growing conditions and inputs or data like farmer payments.

“Almost every large food brand has started experimenting with blockchain enabled traceability since 2018. While traceability systems are not yet on a large scale visible in supermarkets, they are being developed ‘under the hood’,” Fairfield said.

A study published in May found existing blockchains did “enable” food supply chain visibility and guarded “against counterfeit goods” while also noting four challenges: “trust of the technology, human error and fraud at the boundaries, governance, consumer data access and willingness to pay.”
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Vertical farming is blockchain ready

Vertical farming – which already offers elevated and potent traceability potential because of the closed, controlled environment in which plants are grown – is just the kind of agriculture the EU is calling for.

Systems such as those used by BOTALYS (read article here) embed precision via human, digital and AI governance for all inputs and processes meaning vertical farming can achieve near-perfect traceability. We are highly-blockchain ready and can take advantage of EU initiatives that are pushing “agro-ecology living laboratories.”

The sterility our processes achieve within the vertical farm follow strict international standards like FSSC 22000. Already we are setting industry benchmarks in purity and potency but we know blockchain offers the potential to go even higher when it comes to total transparency so we of course are going there too.
With bespoke software and hardware developed for BOTALYS already playing a big part in our ginseng management from the hydroponic blend to the light and oxygen levels and more, we have been at the technological cutting edge since day 1 of our venture. Blockchain is no different.
These developments are placing the ‘horrible track record’ of botanical quality under serious threat. We’re glad to be a driver of this much-needed change.