What happens when hundreds of people fall ill after eating a particular brand of meat? Most likely, the manufacturer will take the precaution of pulling every single product—whether or not that product is affected—from the shelves of every store to prevent further incidents. While this is just a hypothetical situation, food recalls are all too common and seem to happen nearly every day. And, their effects are detrimental.
In addition to potentially harming consumers, the average recall costs a company $10 million, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. To mitigate risks, keep consumers safe, comply with increasingly strict industry regulations, and assuage (if not prevent) recalls, more food and beverage manufacturers are investigating innovative technologies. One of these technologies is radio frequency identification (RFID).
Although RFID has been around for decades, it has quickly gained traction in recent years due to improved read rates, new industry standards, lower system costs, and greater solution reliability. In fact, IDTechEx predicts that the RFID market will reach $18.68 billion by 2026. That growth is across all industries, including food and beverage manufacturing and processing.
In the most basic sense, RFID is a data collection method that utilizes low-power radio waves to send and receive information between tags and readers. As opposed to using barcode scanning (or even the traditional “pen and paper”) for collecting data, RFID does not require user-initiated, line-of-sight efforts and can simultaneously read and write to hundreds of tags within a read field. While barcodes and manual processes aren’t going away anytime soon, RFID, when properly deployed, provides the added benefit of allowing enterprises to acquire data without adding labor or other resources.
For those new to RFID, it is important to distinguish between the two chief types of tags, each offering their own set of advantages. Passive, ultra-high frequency (UHF) tags, also known as RAIN RFID, are the most commonly used. Requiring a powered reader to reflect/transmit their signal, these tags are ideal for tracking large volumes of low-cost items with a continuous flow throughout a specific area. For example, food manufacturers can use passive tags to tracks pallets, bins, or returnable transport items (RTIs) containing ingredients or products as they move through the facility. Furthermore, passive tags are becoming more and more cost effective, with tag prices dropping below 10 cents apiece.
The other key type of RFID tags are active, or Wi-Fi-based, tags. Unlike passive tags, active tags draw from their own internal power supply to transmit signals to standard wireless access points. This provides real-time location information for tracking high-value, high-impact, mobile assets. A good use case for active RFID tags is tracking large machines or pieces of equipment. While active tags are more costly than passive tags, they have a much greater read range—up to 300 feet.
Traceability with RFID
So, how does RFID help with food safety efforts? A central piece of complying with industry regulations like Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, is data collection—food and beverage companies must collect, access, and utilize the necessary data to track and trace products throughout the supply chain. RFID provides these capabilities, and then some.
For instance, manufacturers can attach passive (or RAIN) RFID tags to bins holding a product associated with a lot number. Every time a bin passes through an RFID portal, its tag is read, and data is collected and sent to a database, thus creating an audit trail or chain-of-custody. The audit trail contains valuable information about that product—which line produced it and when? Which machines were used? With this information readily available, manufacturers can quickly and efficiently mitigate a recall. Now, instead of pulling every single product from store shelves, it is possible to pinpoint and pull just the batch that contains the affected products.