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Watch What You Eat

The horsemeat scandal engulfing Europe is evidence that the global food supply chain is just too complex to monitor without RFID and other technologies.
By Mark Roberti
Feb 19, 2013The global economy is based—to a degree larger than most of us ever realized—on trust. Banks trust that when they purchase securitized mortgages, most are good and will be paid. Investors trust that ratings agencies are evaluating investments fairly and honestly. Companies trust that their suppliers are giving them what they ordered. And consumers trust that they are receiving what the package or advertising says they are purchasing.

Most of the time, trust works. But every now and then, something happens that exposes the fact that our trust is misplaced. In 2008, we learned that many mortgages in mortgage-backed securities would never be repaid, and that ratings agencies were not exactly giving investors an honest evaluation of some products. Recently, spot checks conducted by Irish beef inspectors led consumers across Europe to realize that they might not be getting beef when purchasing beef products. In fact, one inspection found that about a third of hamburger meat was composed of horsemeat, and not beef.

How bad is the problem? No one knows for sure, but it is believed that beef sellers are making money by putting cheaper horsemeat into their products and selling them as pure beef. Europol, an organization that usually focuses on international drug trafficking and money laundering, has been brought in to investigate.

The issue here is simple: It is expensive to track every animal using pen and paper, inspect every animal crossing borders, and create a chain of custody showing where the meat used in a particular product originated. Horses are tracked, some via radio frequency identification, but the use of RFID is sporadic. If no one knows what's happening to horses, it is easy to kill the animals, mix the meat with ground beef and then dispose of the carcasses.

This is not just a question of quality. There is a risk to human health. British officials found that some of the horsemeat contained traces of Phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory painkiller used in racehorses, commonly known as bute. Bute is banned for animals intended for eventual human consumption, because it is potentially harmful in large concentrations.

The world's food supply chain crisscrosses countries and continents. Monitoring billions of dollars' worth of food moving from one place to another is impossible with the systems currently being used. This leaves gaping holes for unscrupulous businesses to exploit, potentially putting tens of thousands of people at risk.

The time has come to use RFID and other automatic data-capture technologies to monitor animals and food shipments. I know small farms will say they can't afford the technology. But tags are becoming cheaper, and there are systems hosted in the cloud that enable users to read tags via their mobile phones and then upload that information, so it can be shared with business partners and government regulators.

I would like to see an international effort to standardize both RFID's use for food tracking and the systems utilized for sharing data. Tracking the movements of animals from the time they are born until when they are either consumed or buried is already doable—if the political will is there to make it happen. The cost will be a lot less than the cost of having people swear off beef because they no longer trust that what they get is pure and safe.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.
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Ronan Clinton 2013-03-01 12:04:52 AM
Watch what you eat? Thats not the problem.... The horsemeat scandal in Europe is obviously a very major issue, and the extent of it will not be uncovered for some time. You mention that one test showed that a burger contained as much as a third horsemeat but there have been products removed from shelves advertised as being 100% beef that were actually 100% horsemeat. It is absolutely shocking. However, I would like you to explain to me how RFID will solve this problem. The problem is not traceability or the monitoring of cattle or anything like it. Where does RFID fit into the resolution of the actual problem? From the current standpoint RFID would only make the actual problem worse. I will explain why. The real problem is money. Forget the 'RFID is too expensive' argument for now, but the source of this entire scandal is money. Since the 2008 financial crises, the pressure that has been placed on the entire supply chain from a cost perspective by the major multiples has been overwhelming. We have seen supermarkets slash the price they are willing to pay to suppliers (not just meat - everything) by 20-30% with attitudes of 'reduce your price or we go elsewhere'. They have been unscrupulous in their endless efforts to aquire products cheaper. They in turn have been generating special offers and various other low cost options to get the shoppers back to their stores. Having spent some time at that end of the supply chain industry I can tell you that it is an absolute disgrace at the commercial pressures placed on suppliers. A lot of honost suppliers have perished by an inability to turn a profit. Its just the way things are. However, there is a suspected large scale criminal element by organised groups at the route of this scandal. Even though the equine DNA was found in Ireland, the meat itself is suspected to have come from Poland and Germany from abbatoirs where at some point a decision was made by human beings to include meat they could aquire cheaper in order to stay in business. A lack of RFID did not cause the problem, nor will the introduction of RFID resolve it. In Europe, we have such strict rules regarding the quality and processing of beef that it is extremely difficult to operate and many companies have closed their doors because of it. The presence of metal detectors and other such technology which are essential and mandatory also cause issues for RFID at the various stages of production (I have worked on an RFID project on a kill floor) and as soon as a beast is killed, it is hung, drawn and quartered within minutes. While we can put RFID tags in the hooks etc. to track movements within a facility, it cannot and will not prevent that human from making a decision to take the cheaper option and make money Can you outline your understanding of how RFID will eradicate the real problem?

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