Radio Frequency Identification Shows Promise for Food Safety

Radio frequency identification could track food products through the supply chain.

Imagine pointing your smart phone at a head of lettuce in the grocery store and having the phone tell you what farm the lettuce came from and the date the produce arrived in the grocery store. What if your phone could even tell you what temperatures the lettuce was exposed to in transit?

Would you pay extra for that lettuce? You can bet I would.

This scenario could come to fruition with radio frequency identification, already used by some retailers for inventory control. One employee is able to wave a handheld device, reading the RFID tags on thousands of products and updating the inventory in a few minutes. Or fixed readers located on either side of a dock door can do the same job.

RFID is a form of auto-identification, like a bar code or a quick response code. An RFID tag contains a unique serial number, like a license tag. If you go to a department store and hold a package of underwear up to the light, you can see the tag. A “human readable” is printed on the outside of the tag, but the RFID guts are what matters.

RFID tags have been around for a while in garage door openers, key fobs, and toll passes. Those applications are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how RFID can be used. The next frontier is tracking food products through the supply chain from producer to consumer, helping to guarantee safety and quality.

The technology needed to track a product from the farm to the customer exists. If the final product has a unique identifier, it is theoretically possible to trace the product back all the way to every raw material that went into that product.

For that to happen, the use of RFID would have to be ubiquitous. Every entity along the supply chain would have to electronically record data—and that means everybody, from the small local farmer to the giant wholesaler. Then, all that data would have to be transmitted to a central database that doesn’t yet exist.

An RFID tag now costs about 8 cents, and a handheld reader costs a couple of thousand dollars. Is that prohibitively expensive for a small producer? You wouldn’t have to put a tag on every tomato—maybe on every box or every pallet of tomatoes. The cost is probably not prohibitive if large retailers and consumers insist. Wal-Mart, for example, requires some clothing suppliers to include RFID tags on removable tags or packaging.

Nor is a centralized database an impossible barrier. The Global Data Synchronisation Network (GDSN) enables companies around the globe to exchange standardized and synchronized supply chain data with trading partners. Data are obtained from bar codes, another form of auto ID, and standardized by a company called GS1.

Still, a lot of questions would have to be answered. What would the database look like? Who would have access? Should participation be mandated? Might consumers push for this kind of system?

Maybe—because such a system could make our food much safer and save millions of dollars for producers, distributors, and every entity along the supply chain.

Suppose a batch of cookie dough is recalled after testing shows the presence of Salmonella. Let’s say the whole batch was sold to five companies that shipped to 16 distribution centers, which in turn served 3,000 grocery stores. The cookie dough has to be pulled from refrigerators at all 3,000 stores, because there is no way to track the batch with more specificity.

A major insurance company, Hartford Financial Services Group, is encouraging transportation companies to use temperature sensors — another kind of RFID — on pallets and cases of perishable products.

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