The impetus for food companies to use RFID is increasing from another sector, as well. 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 to lower their insurance rates. Why? Because trucking companies often bear the cost of bad product even when they are not at fault.
These temperature sensors are expensive, costing $4 or $5 per unit. They can be reused, and when affixed to a pallet or case record temperature in real time along the supply chain. Temperature can be recorded every minute, hour, or day, and in different sections of a refrigerated truck—say, near the door as opposed to far back in the interior of the truck.
Let’s say lettuce is shipped from California, and the temperature drops below 32 degrees for the first six hours on the truck. When the produce is delivered to the grocery store, it looks fine—but within a short time the lettuce will go limp.
The insurance company wants to know where in the supply chain the problem occurred. The lettuce producer says the lettuce was fine when he put it on the truck, but the retailer says it went bad in one day. This time, the problem can be traced back to the temperature during transportation. Another time, however, the supplier might have left the product on the dock, where it was exposed to high temperatures for three hours. Another time, the retailer might have left the lettuce on the dock too long after delivery.
What if the product were shrimp or fish, and the temperature near the door was five degrees higher than it should have been? How would you like to be the consumer who got the shrimp from the pallet near the door? Without RFID temperature sensors, you don’t know where along the line the product got too hot or too cold.
Until now, RFID temperature sensors utilized nonstandard technology, which made industry-wide adoption difficult because the different technologies were not interoperable. Now, GS1 has standardized the technology. Although insurance companies and the FSMA are pushing the food service industry to improve traceability, the push will ultimately come from consumers. A strong advocacy group could embrace the issue, resulting in a database created by producers, processors, and retailers. This database could be accessible to every consumer with a smart phone who wants to know where his food came from—and how safe it really is.
Dr. Bill Hardgrave, dean of the Auburn University College of Business, is founder and director of the RFID Center at the University of Arkansas. He is a member of the advisory council for the Auburn University Food Systems Initiative, which is working with the FDA to develop food safety training for food inspectors at all levels, nationally and locally.