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The Co-op is exploring blockchain technology

Lynsey Barber
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Co-op is understood to be the first supermarket looking at blockchain (Source: Co-op)

The Co-Operative Group is exploring how blockchain technology can be used to prove the authenticity of its food in a pilot of a "fairtrade for the digital age" project.

The supermarket is working with early stage blockchain startup Provenance to investigate how its technology can be used to track that its produce comes from sustainable sources in what's thought to be the first pilot project of its kind by a major retailer.

Provenance, which is about to embark on a seed funding round after initial government funding, has just completed a separate pilot project proving the viability of blockchain’s distributed ledger technology for digitally tracking tuna through the supply chain - from catch to plate.

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The ambitious project shows how blockchain, which essentially creates a publicly immutable ledger of transactions, can ensure claims made on food labels are correct.

But the company also envisions the wider application for monitoring the provenance of other items such as fashion and is already in discussions with luxury retailers about potential use cases.

It is also working with smaller firms, offering a so-called plug and play service that lets shops and producers prove the artisanal or craft nature of their products by creating a digitally based history which consumers are able to view via a smartphone.

With the Co-op, it is looking at how it could potentially be applied broadly to other food items

"Co-op are very progressive in view of what supermarket should be, and is pioneering [with this project] like it has been with Fairtrade" said Provenance founder Jessi Baker.

"Most supermarkets are realising that sustainability is an issue, whether that's pressure from government or consumers, especially after something like the horsemeat scandal.

Read more: The UK now has its first official blockchain provider for public services

Baker describes Provenance as "like fairtrade for the digital age" but more than just a simple mark, as it is backed up by verification that everyone is able to see.

"We're not trying to be another certification - what we’re trying to be is a common method of access to the journey of items and to prove key claims on items labels," said Baker. "For brands, proving key claims about a product will be a key competitive advantage in future."

At the Co-operative, the experiment is being led by the supermarket's chief digital officer Mike Bracken, the former head of the government's digital services.

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