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Islands of Automation: Hawaii Sponsors RFID Trial

Farmers in Hawaii will apply RFID tags to lettuce, strawberries, and tomatoes in a pilot project to provide visibility from the farm to the supermarket. The state- and USDA-sponsored pilot could expand to include all 5,000 farms in Hawaii.
Oct 19, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

October 19, 2007—The fiftieth state is trying to be first in food traceability with an RFID pilot program to track produce from the farm to the supermarket. The State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture is about to launch the three-year pilot, and hopes to have all 5,000 farms in the state using RFID when the pilot ends.

"We want to make sure that Hawaii farmers have the tools available to meet the food safety precautions that will likely be required in the future," Sandra Lee Kunimoto, chairperson of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture, is quoted in the state's announcement. "The ability to track and trace where our food comes from and where it has been distributed will become even more important as our food supply continues to be globalized."

"By weaving the RFID architecture the right way, you can give growers, wholesalers, and retailers a view of their operations that is unprecedented. Now traceability in the food industry is usually paper-based and fairly rudimentary," Ross Bonn of Lowry Computer Products told RFID Update. Lowry is serving as master integrator for the pilot.

Three growers, one distributor, and one grocery chain are participating at the start. The state hopes others will join the pilot, which received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Economic Development Alliance of Hawaii. The Hawaii Department of Agriculture estimated the pilot will cost $1.6 million.

Growers will apply pre-encoded RFID labels to cartons of lettuce, strawberries, and tomatoes. The produce will be recorded in a database during the packing process, and individual cartons will be associated with their specific shipping pallet, which will receive an RFID label. The RFID labels will be read when they leave the grower, when they are received at the distributor, when they enter and leave storage areas at the distributor, when they are shipped to the grocery store, and when they are received at individual stores. The grocer will also read cartons when they are removed from cold storage, to indicate they have been put out for sale, and will read empty cartons at the disposal point. A mix of handheld and portal readers from Motorola will be deployed to various read points.

"The pilot is mostly trying to build a model to provide traceability," said Bonn. The system can protect consumer safety by providing chain-of-custody documentation and help isolate products in case of recall. State officials see other benefits, such as the ability to validate and promote Hawaiian-grown products, and to help state farmers and retailers develop a reputation for quality and excellence.

The state is creating a web portal, and Lowry is building a transactional database so pilot participants can share RFID data. Neither the EPCIS RFID data exchange standard (see RFID Data Sharing Standard EPCIS is Ratified) nor the technology-independent GS1 Global Traceability Standard that was developed for the food industry are being utilized. Lowry's solution features the iMotion software from GlobeRanger to streamline RFID data integration and communication. Lowry and GlobeRanger had previously collaborated to develop traceability solutions for the food industry, according to GlobeRanger's Susan King.

"This is an exciting vertical for RFID," King said. "Not only because it shows new uses of the technology beyond the traditional supply chain and logistics applications, but because of the opportunity to improve consumer safety."

Growers participating in the program were not identified. Dole has major operations in Hawaii, and has been actively involved in developing RFID systems to enhance traceability and recall effectiveness (click here for a good summary). The Hawaiian pilot is similar to an award-winning avocado-tracking pilot conducted in Chile (see Awards Honor RFID Innovators).
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