UK – Scholars have called for the establishment of a pilot food standards trust framework to test the power of data trust frameworks designed to address food standards compliance issues.

In an article co-written for Nature magazine with academics from a number of UK universities, Andrew McMillan of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, highlighted the potential for a “digitally transformed food system” to be enabled through mechanisms such as data trusts, which  envisage independent stewardship of data through a legal structure that both allows for the pooling of data from various sources and the making available of those datasets to organizations to use for their own purposes.

Data is already exchanged under contract within the food system, but McMillan and the academics, who included Simon Pearson and Steve Brewer of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology at the University of Lincoln, underscored the limitations of this framework in their article.

“While a multitude of such arrangements exist, they were generally developed as local ad-hoc contractual arrangements and require continuous adaptation as trading relationships evolve, new data sources become available, where novel approaches are developed for extracting value from data, or where inequalities from the exchange of data become apparent. These pragmatics, but short-term, approaches may succeed in addressing an immediate concern, but can also result, ultimately, in greater friction and inefficiencies being built into the system,” they said.

They noted that as food systems undergo digital transformation, a new approach for data governance is required, one that is legally robust, secures a wider public purpose and facilitates the necessary trust to stimulate data exchanges across the whole food sector.

According to McMillan and the academics, the potential of a digitally transformed food system can only be realized if assented and trusted data can flow seamlessly through complex, multi-lateral supply chains, effectively from farms through to the consumer.

They foresee an intelligent, devolved food supply chain riveted on securing a common good by the secure exchange and sharing of information. This can range from secure sharing of regulatory compliance information, through to gaining unique insights from artificial intelligence harnessing secure collections of distributed data.

They pointed out robust and resilient data-driven services, aligned with secure and independent artificial intelligence services potentially accessing anonymized, but traceable, independent data, and a strong human-centred governance process representing all food system stakeholders, including the consumer are necessary to attain this goal.

“We contend that regulatory compliance can and should be better enabled through data trust frameworks and as a result contribute to a more resilient and robust food chain. This vision could be realized over a relatively short time period; considerable exchangeable data are already collected by supply chain actors for their own private or commercial purpose. The challenging step is the gain of consensus to exchange data between what would normally be highly competitive organizations operating in the food chain,” they said.

Therefore, improved data exchange could drive sustainable business growth and secure wider public benefits by defining standards and underpinning food safety.

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