Kroger’s food safety chief wants to untangle the food supply chain

As VP of corporate food technology and regulatory compliance at Kroger, Popoola is one of a small number of industry leaders experimenting with blockchain technology.

This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.

Howard Popoola was nine years old when he planted corn for the first time in the backyard of his family’s home in northern Nigeria. “A few days after, you could see something coming out of the ground,” he told IBM. Popoola was hooked. Throughout his childhood, he continued to grow fruit, vegetables, beans and whatever else he could coax out of the soil. His yield often ended up on his family’s dinner table. “My passion was really in growing food,” he said.

Popoola’s early love of food made him particularly sympathetic to the lack of it in “less blessed” areas of the world. That sensitivity informed his subsequent career moves. After studying food and industrial microbiology at the University of Lagos, he joined the United Nations Food Program (now the World Food Programme). For years, Popoola traveled to dozens of countries to help manufacturers comply with the UN’s food safety standards. “That’s where I cut my food safety teeth,” Popoola said. From there, Popoola honed his skills in high-level positions at Darigold, Kraft, Nestle, US Foods, and Topco. Today, Popoola is well beyond cutting his teeth. Now, he’s working at the cutting edge of food safety.

As VP of corporate food technology and regulatory compliance at the American retailer Kroger, Popoola is one of a small number of industry leaders engaged in an ambitious new effort to provide an unprecedented level of trust and transparency to the food supply chain through blockchain technology. The initiative, called IBM Food Trust, includes 10 companies across the global food supply, including producers like Dole and other major food retailers like Walmart. “Unlike any technology before it, blockchain is transforming the way like-minded organizations come together and enabling a new level of trust based on a single view of the truth,” said Marie Wieck, general manager for IBM Blockchain, in a release.

Changing the industry

The food supply chain has never been more complex. These days, an ingredient from one producer can end up in thousands of products distributed to retailers around the world. And yet, there is currently no widely adopted industry standard for how each segment of the food system—farmers, processors, distributors, retailers—tracks and records data on those products. Many are still recording their data on paper. While some use digital methods, they don’t enable communication with other parties in the system.

Drive transparency with blockchain

Piecing together traceability data, therefore, requires sifting through hundreds or even thousands of documents—a slow, complicated and often ineffective process. During a foodborne disease outbreak, it often takes manufacturers weeks to figure out the precise point of contamination, so they simply ask the retailers to toss out any product that has the slightest chance of being contaminated.

“The only way we can eliminate waste is to make sure that we avoid a situation where we have to throw out a whole bunch of perfectly OK food just because we can’t isolate the contaminated product,” Popoola said.

A path forward

In the beginning of the summer of 2017, Popoola learned about a way to change the status quo. At a leadership meeting, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen encouraged Popoola to contact his counterpart at Walmart, Vice President of Food Safety Frank Yiannas. Walmart had been working with IBM since 2016 to use blockchain to improve the way food is tracked, transported and sold to consumers. Now, the retailer, along with IBM, was inviting other businesses to explore the technology by joining the IBM Food Trust.

Traceability in the global food system is an evergreen issue, and through the decades IBM has applied the latest technologies to help address it. In the 1950s, for instance, IBM helped Denmark develop an innovative database to track every beef and dairy cow in the country. During the mad cow disease scare of the 1980s, the database helped save the nation’s cattle industry.

Retailers are notoriously competitive, however, and collaboration across the industry has been challenging in the past. But Kroger’s leadership didn’t hesitate to join the Food Trust initiative, in large part because encouraging the reduction of food waste across the industry has long been a company priority.

Today, as part of a company program called Zero Hunger Zero Waste, store associates in nearly all Kroger supermarkets identify meat, produce, dairy and bakery items that can no longer be sold yet remain safe, fresh and nutritious. The items are then donated to Feeding America’s network of food banks. According to Feeding America President Matt Knot, the nonprofit’s retail donations program grew “in large part because Kroger opened its playbook to the rest of the industry and showed other retailers how it could be done.” That same spirit of collaboration underlies Kroger’s interest in blockchain, which requires a whole host of parties working together to be successful.

“As an individual organization there’s only so much we can do. But together as a team, powerful retailers and other food manufacturers can do a whole lot more,” Popoola said. After an initial proof of technology exercise last summer, Popoola said, the company’s blockchain effort remains “a work in progress.” The imperative for industry players to work together to tackle problems of mutual concern, meanwhile, remains as urgent as ever.

“If there’s an outbreak of E.coli associated with chopped romaine lettuce, for example, that cripples the entire industry—not just the growers, not just the Doles of this world that take on the harvested products and shred them, and not just the retailer that sells them. Everyone gets affected. That’s why food safety can’t be a competitive advantage, because if one of us is affected it affects us all,” he said.

Scaling success

For Popoola, the FoodTrust initiative touches two personal passions—increasing food safety and reducing food waste. Today, roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted. At the same time, 815 million people around the world suffer from chronic hunger. The extreme disparity between abundance and scarcity, Popoola said, disturbs him. “You shouldn’t have to debate whether you should eat today or not. I believe it is a human right to be able to have food,” he said.

That conviction has informed Popoola’s work throughout his career. And it’s what will keep motivating him, he said, as he works to build a stronger supply chain across the globe—one that makes shoppers as confident about the food they buy as though they grew it themselves in their own backyards.

“That’s who I am today—a guy who watches over 2,800 retail stores and 38 manufacturing facilities producing safe foods, but also a guy who is passionate about makings sure that we don’t waste food and that we make food available to the communities we serve,” Popoola said.