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University Takes a Fresh Approach to RFID

The University of Florida's Center for Food Distribution and Retailing is finding ways to make RFID tags work on produce shipments and keep perishable food from spoiling.
By Jonathan Collins
Aug 08, 2005When Jean-Pierre Emond, an associate professor of packaging science at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), was first told about RFID, he immediately comprehended the extraordinary impact the technology could have on the fresh food supply chain.

"I felt like I was being handed the keys to a Ferrari," he says. "Here was this wonderful technology capable of doing so much." But when he looked into it a little more, he says, he discovered a snag. "Nobody told me that the Ferrari wouldn't start. There was no way to guarantee reads from the RFID tags with food products."

Testing tags on plastic crates used for shipping perishable food.

While many industries are faced with finding a way to use RFID effectively and reliably, the tagging of fresh food raises particular problems for RFID. Radio frequency waves are absorbed by water, and most perishable foods such as meat, fruit, vegetables and dairy products have high water content. In fact, on average, produce is around 90 percent water. Even so, Edmond and his team have found ways to work with those technology limitations and turn them to the fresh-food industry’s advantage.

Not only can products interfere with the operation of RFID, but so can their packaging. A corrugated box can absorb 10 percent of its weight in water in a humid environment. This adds to the complexity of guaranteeing reliable RFID reads, because the environment where the package will be read should also be considered. In addition, a great deal of perishable food packaging includes metal foil as a way to protect food from spoiling. However, metal reflects RFID signals, adding another variable to impact RFID reliability.

In 2003, Emond began talking with his IFAS colleague Jeffrey Brecht about ways to use RFID technology with fresh food. Brecht specializes in research on postharvest physiology and horticulture of vegetables and fruits. Bringing together IFAS’s expertise in perishable food practices and technologies, as well as input from retailers, food service companies and restaurant chains, Emond worked to form the Center for Food Distribution and Retailing (CFDR) in the summer of 2003.

CFDR also drew on support from Franwell, an RFID systems integrator based in Plant City, Fla. Franwell President and CEO Jeff Wells had visited the university and offered to support CFDR's RFID program by contributing RFID equipment from all major manufacturers, as well as by providing technical support. The research uses its own RFID lab, as well as the facilities of the university and industry partners, to examine how RFID can be used in the fresh-food supply chain.

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