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Tags With Sensors Track Produce

An RFID-based service lets produce providers monitor the temperature of fruits, vegetables and other perishables as they travel through the supply chain.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 25, 2004A new system in use in Australia is allowing fresh-food producers use RFID technology to monitor the temperature of their produce in transit. Created by Australian technology provider Global Licensing & Innovation (GL&I) has provided the hardware, in partnership with environmental monitoring company Exago, the x_Tract Cold Chain Monitoring Service monitors the temperature of fruits and vegetables (or other perishable items, such as pharmaceutical or medical goods), as they travel from suppliers through the supply chain to the retail destination. According to GL&I, its RFID-based system will make the movement of produce both more efficient and less expensive.
Peter Beggs

Based in Reservoir, Victoria, GL&I is the technology unit of Carter Holt Harvey (a subsidiary of International Paper). By introducing RFID technologies such as x_Tract, GL&I hopes to eliminate the uncertainty that can surround produce transportation. Some of that uncertainty involves not knowing whether produce arrives at the market without spoilage. With the x_Tract system, produce companies can know in real time their produce's temperature, and track what it has been at any given point in transit, thereby eliminating concerns about produce being delayed and spoiling somewhere in the supply chain. The tag continuously monitors and stores temperature and time data throughout the supply chain. The data is then checked at the various predetermined points. If the goods are found to have spoiled, the information on the tag will determine who was responsible by providing temperature and time data.

German company KSW Microtec makes the TempSens semi-active read-write 13.56 MHz tags, which come with a temperature sensor. Compliant with the ISO 15693-3 standard, the tag uses its battery to store temperature and time data in its memory, which can contain up to 2 kilobytes of data. Encased in protective plastic skin and about the size of a credit card, the tag can be attached to the surface of a shipping crate or box, or can be inserted into a shipment or pallet-load of perishable goods as it leaves the farm, wharf or warehouse.

According to GL&I General Manager Peter Beggs, the system offers an accurate temperature reading in part because the data it collects comes from tags placed close to the product. This allows more temperature information that is more relevant than a temperature reading of an entire shipping container or warehouse.

The system was under trial in Australia for the past 18 months but was released for commercial use this fall. Currently RFID readers are being used by customers—such as pharmaceutical maker CSL Limited, which participated in the 18-month trial—at a shipment's points of departure and its arrival at a retail destination, but as the system expands, readers could be placed at every point where transported items are transferred from one shipper or warehouse to another.

"It's being done on a small scale now," says Beggs, who adds that new applications are being developed that could include measurement of relative humidity, acidity (pH), gas saturation, shock and vibration.

The RFID tags cost approximately $20 Australian (US$15) each and are reusable. They remain effective for about one year, which is the shelf life of the battery. The system offers several RFID readers, including a desktop model (the PR-100A Multi-Tag Reader made by Feig Electronic) that connects to a PC and a handheld model that plugs into a CompactFlash Type II slot of a laptop computer, PDA or other device. The readers' cost ranges from AUS$600 to AUS$800 (US$461 to US$615), although readers may also be leased. Some food producers with seasonal shipments opt to lease the readers from GL&I for fixed periods of time. The readers can scan the labels from a distance of about 6 inches.

The data is uploaded—either by means of an Internet connection or via a GPRS cell phone network—to an online database that's part of the x_Tract Web site managed by Exago. The desktop reader is connected to a PC and therefore the Internet via a serial connection. The handheld model can be plugged into a PDA that uses a standard GPRS wireless connection to upload and download data.

A customer uses a password to access its data on the x_Tract Web site, which system also generates e-alerts. The customer can configure and operate the x_Tract Web site through his or her Internet connection, allowing remote access to temperature and travel time information. In addition, the x_Tract Web site can be established to e-mail the customer and other companies in the supply chain to alert them whenever data is available for viewing at the company's database or if there has been a temperature violation.

Customers can pay an annual or monthly service fee—AUD$600 (US$470) per year or AUD$70 (US$55) per month—to access the x_Tract Web site and use it to track a shipment. In addition, customers pay a fee of AUS$2.50 to AUS$6 (US$2 to US$5) per tag per consignment. E-alerts are part of the subscription cost.

The x_Tract service is available in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Singapore. GL&I has created partner agreements in Singapore and Chile, both of which are target markets for x_Tract. Beggs adds that he and other x_Tract representatives have met with GL&I's parent company, International Paper, in the United States and hope to implement the system throughout the worldwide market.

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