But what if RFID tags were affixed to cases of cookie dough? The cookie dough manufacturer would know the precise date when the bad cookie dough was shipped and would be able to zero in on cases shipped that day. Those 3,000 stores would be narrowed to 52 stores. The manufacturer would save millions of dollars, and we wouldn’t throw away good food.
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Suppose somebody actually gets sick from the cookie dough. Once investigators know where the customer bought the cookie dough, it would be possible to trace back all the way through the supply chain, through the distribution center to the manufacturer and the particular batch.
Finally, the flour in the cookie dough is determined to be the culprit. If an RFID tag were used all the way through production and distribution, the cookie dough manufacturer could determine where the flour used in that batch was processed and where the wheat was grown.
Then trace forward, determining what other products were made with the flour. If, in this same scenario, people were to start getting sick from pizza, those outbreaks would be treated today as completely separate. If the ingredients were traceable, however, you could determine that the flour from the same producer was used in both the pizza and the cookie dough. What’s more, you could determine what other products were made using the tainted flour.
With such a system, tracing backward and forward through the supply chain, we could save money, time, and lives. Today, foodborne illnesses caused by tainted food sicken 48 million people and kill 3,000 every year. If we identified tainted food more quickly and got it off the shelves, how many lives could we save?
When people started getting sick from listeriosis last year, cantaloupes were identified as the culprit, but the source of the cantaloupes couldn’t be identified immediately. When Colorado’s Jensen Farms was finally identified, there was no way to determine which batch of cantaloupes was tainted. Using RFID technology, there would have been a unique identifier on every carton shipped, the recall could have taken place sooner, and officials could have figured out exactly where the bad cantaloupes ended up.
Businesses could save money by implementing RFID technology. When Peter Pan peanut butter was recalled in 2007 because of a Salmonella problem in one of its facilities over three years’ time, the company had to pull all its peanut butter off shelves across the United States. It cost some $50 million to recall and destroy all of that product, and Peter Pan peanut butter was not on grocery shelves for several months. In fact, sales of all peanut butter were down some 25% after the recall.
So why aren’t big producers lining up to implement RFID technology? I’ve worked with a lot of them, and they’re all concerned about safety. They don’t want anyone to get sick and die, but they look at RFID the way the average person looks at buying an insurance policy. Is the cost more than the risk? Will I actually need the insurance?
Nevertheless, recalls are increasing. A food quality manager for a regional supermarket told me they receive more than 300 recalls a year—approximately one a day. And the new FSMA gives the FDA mandatory recall authority for the first time ever.
The law also seeks to shift the FDA’s approach from responding to outbreaks to preventing them, and the FDA is charged with developing a food traceability system to quickly track and trace foods as they move through the supply chain. This is going to be tough, and we are working with the Institute of Food Technologists and others to try to find traceability solutions.