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Award-winning Belfast tech firm joins €10m international drive to stamp out food fraud

By Margaret Canning

A Belfast technology company founded by a former butcher is to work with Chinese authorities on a €10m project using blockchain to stamp out food fraud. Arc-net will be providing the technology to power the project, led by Queen's University's Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST).

Last week, Arc-net was named start-up of the year at Belfast tech event Digital DNA.

EU-China-Safe, which is part-funded by the European Horizon 2020 programme, aims to reduce food fraud by focusing on traceability and improving food inspection across the supply chain networks of the EU and China.

It hopes to ensure that global food chain scandals such as 2013's horse meat scare never happen again.

Arc-net was founded by Kieran Kelly to develop a technology platform to trace meat products from farm to fork, using animals' DNA.

It takes a series of samples from each animal throughout its life and logs the details on a database.

Mr Kelly said Arc-net was "delighted" to be selected as technology partner in the "ground-breaking and transformative project".

He said: "Arc-net's mission has always been to ensure the health of current and future generations by providing access to safe and authentic food, and we see this project as a vital step in achieving this goal.

"The use of innovative technologies will result in the creation of a fully transparent supply chain network, which will become the foundation for a trusted digital community."

Professor Yongning Wu, chief scientist from the China National Centre for Food Safety Risk Assessment, co-ordinator of the Chinese efforts in the project, said: "The EU-China-Safe partnership between our two trading regions is of immense importance to help deliver safe and genuine food to all citizens.

"Working together across the EU and China will enable us to identify where food fraud is happening, address the root causes and thereby enable us to improve food safety standards for all our citizens."

Arc-net plans to use blockchain to improve the traceability of food. While blockchain is most familiar as the technology underpinning digital currency Bitcoin, it can also be adapted to other uses.

Blockchain is a sealed database designed to maintain a continuously growing list of records called blocks.

Each block contains a timestamp and a secure link to the previous block. Access to blockchains is limited to authorised community members. Arc-net is among a number of companies in Belfast investigating uses of blockchain.

Business advisory firm PwC has a team in Belfast carrying out research on blockchain, while Japanese tech firm Rakuten has opened a software centre in the city specifically for blockchain investigations.

It's been discussed as a reliable form of record-keeping for everything from ship registration and car records, to gun control in the US by co-ordinating health records with gun ownership records.

Arc-net was founded by Mr Kelly in 2014, and has offices in Edinburgh, in addition to its Belfast base.

It has also worked with the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen's, Cranswick plc - which owns Dunbia's former pork operation in Ballymena - and various Northern Ireland-based red meat producers.

In February, Dr Richard Steeves, founder of medical outsourcing firm Synergy Health, became chairman of Arc-net, and said he believed the firm would revolutionise traceability in the food chain. Dr Steeves also backed Arc-net with a £2m investment, expected to help boost its workforce from 20 to 50.

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