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Item-Level RFID Prevents Meat Spoilage for METRO

METRO Group installed an RFID system at its new Future Store to track individual packages of meat to ensure no spoiled products leave the store. RFID data also provides a real-time view of demand that's used to direct meat cutting and packaging operations.
Jun 10, 2008This article was originally published by RFID Update.

June 10, 2008—An RFID system developed to ensure meat safety and freshness is one of the technology highlights at the new Future Store that German retailer METRO Group opened two weeks ago. The new store in Toenisvort, Germany, is METRO Group's second Future Store, where the retailer showcases new technology and processes in an actual retail store, and first for its real,- hypermarket brand. Each individual package of fresh meat at the store is labeled with a passive Gen2 RFID tag that keys applications to prevent the sale of outdated product and provide inventory information to drive replenishment and meat cutting operations.

"METRO Group installed readers in the case, at the POS (point-of-sale) stations, and at the exit gates to provide three levels of assurance that no expired product will leave the store," Ramone Hecker, senior director of RFID solutions at Impinj, told RFID Update. Impinj announced it provided the RFID readers and antennas for the real,- Future Store. "The company is absolutely committed to food safety, and thinks this service level will also provide differentiation in a very competitive market."

Meat cutters at the store apply EPC Gen2 RFID smart labels to meat packages. The labels are driven by AD-222 inlays from Avery Dennison. Each package is identified and recorded when it is placed into the display case, which METRO calls the Smart Case. The meat case is about 50 feet long and contains a series of decks that measure approximately two feet wide by three feet deep where meat packages are displayed for purchase. Each deck includes four embedded RFID antenna elements, which integrate to an Impinj Speedway reader that continually monitors the best-before dates of items on the deck. Multiple readers and antennas are used to provide coverage for the entire case. Impinj worked closely with the refrigerated case manufacturer to create the integrated product. The readers utilize both near field (magnetic) and far field (RF) transmission to provide continual monitoring, according to Hecker. Impinj custom designed the antenna because it was not satisfied with the accuracy from the numerous off-the-shelf models it tested, according to Hecker.

"There is a lot of water and a lot of salt in meat. That creates a very challenging environment to get near 100 percent read rates," said Hecker, who also noted that the density within the display case frequently changes as products are removed and restocked, which adds to the RFID reading challenge.

When readers detect products are nearing their best-before dates, software integrated to the readers automatically issues a notification to store managers. RFID readers at the POS stations and store exit points provide additional levels of protection.

Store managers also use the RFID data to monitor sales in real-time so butchering operations can be adjusted for demand.

"The automatic product recognition technology is an intrinsic part of the store's quality assurance system for meat products prepared in the in-house butchery," METRO said in its announcement. "Every time a customer removes a product (from the Smart Case), integrated RFID readers register this automatically. This makes it possible to plan the in-house production of fresh meat products extremely precisely, and significantly contributes toward the ongoing optimization of quality assurance processes."

The RFID-enabled tracking process will also save time, according to Hecker. "The individual I worked with at METRO actually used to work as a stocker in the meat department. He spent four hours every morning bar code scanning every item in the meat case to do inventory. The process was very time consuming," Hecker said. "This individual is passionate about improving the process and getting error-free performance."

However, food safety is the main motivator for the real,- application and is a driving force behind a growing number of RFID projects. This is believed to be the first item-level, retail-level RFID meat tracking application, but the technology is commonly used to track livestock on farms and during mass processing operations (see RFID for All of New Zealand's Cattle and Deer by 2011 for a recent development). RFID has also been used in cold chain supply chain operations to monitor the location and condition of produce shipments (see Awards Honor RFID Innovators and Islands of Automation: Hawaii Sponsors RFID Trial).

"Interest in using RFID for food safety is very high," said Hecker. "This technology could go a long way to eliminating the types of food safety incidents that have occurred."

METRO's involvement has the potential to accelerate the market. For now METRO, which is the world's third-largest retailer, is only using the meat tracking system at its real,- Future Store, but the company is installing RFID systems throughout the real,- chain (see METRO Expands RFID to 200 More Locations) for receiving operations and could add other applications that prove effective.
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