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Hawaii Expands Produce Supply Chain RFID Pilot

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture is adding temperature-sensing active RFID tags and ocean shipments from the mainland US to its ongoing food traceability pilot project. The initiative continues to track produce shipments within the state with passive RFID.
Feb 04, 2009This article was originally published by RFID Update.

February 4, 2009—For the first time, the long-running Hawaiian produce traceability pilot project will track products shipped to Hawaii from outside the state. A distributor in California will affix semi-passive RFID tags with temperature sensors to monitor pallets of produce shipped to Hawaii in ocean liners. Once the pallets arrive, a Hawaiian distributor will identify the pallets with RFID and check integrated temperature sensor readings to verify proper temperatures were maintained before accepting the shipment.

The Hawaii Produce Traceability Initiative is jointly administered by the Hawaii Farm Bureau and the state's department of agriculture. It began in 2007 (see Islands of Automation: Hawaii Sponsors RFID Trial) and has focused on testing RFID systems to provide traceability for produce exchanged by in-state growers, distributors and supermarkets.

"We have not yet tracked across the ocean," Dr. John Ryan, the project administrator and an official with the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture told RFID Update.

"This project provides the backbone for future and more preventive closed-loop sensor technologies which are capable of measuring and reporting biocontaminants and temperature variations via the RFID system as produce moves through the supply chain," Ryan said in an announcement issued by UPM Raflatac, which provided 50,000 passive RFID inlays to be used for repacking cases that will arrive in tagged pallets in this phase of the project.

In the new phase, California produce distributor Continental Sales will put reusable semi-passive RFID tags with integrated temperature sensors from Infratab on pallets bound for shipment to Armstrong Produce in Honolulu. The tags will be automatically read when they leave the Continental warehouse in California, and when they are received at the Armstrong facility in Hawaii. After Armstrong identifies the pallets and ensures products were kept at acceptable storage temperatures, it will remove individual cases and relabel them with passive RFID tags. The cases will be tracked to a military commissary that supports U.S. Marine Corps operations in Hawaii.

The pilot program had already established business processes for using passive case labels. Armstrong reads them when shipments leave its facility, and four Food Lion supermarkets read them when shipments are received at stores.

In other pilot operations, produce growers apply passive RFID labels to cases they sell to Armstrong, the distributor. The practice enables products to be traced from the field where they were grown to the supermarket where they were sold. Participants are planning to conduct a mock recall this summer, according to Ryan.

Hawaiian state agencies and other pilot project participants developed their own systems for sharing RFID-collected data throughout the supply chain. The system does not use the EPCIS data sharing standard, which is being evaluated in several other pilot programs (see EPCIS, RFID Effective in European Pharmaceutical Pilot and EPCglobal Plans Multi-technology RFID Pilot). Hawaii maintains a web portal with information about the pilot and its other food safety certification initiatives.

RFID has proven to be reliable and effective for food traceability -- but is not yet cost effective, according to Ryan.

"RFID costs are still too high for food distributors to use the technology in large-scale operations," he said. "Until we get reader costs and tag costs down quite a bit lower than where they are now, it's not going to be feasible for the agriculture industry to use RFID at the case level."

Ryan said RFID reader and tag costs fell appreciably in the past 12 months and he is optimistic RFID costs can drop to the point where the technology becomes practical for high-volume food traceability.

"When you look at the current peanut situation, you think the government probably will legislate more food traceability at some point," Ryan said. "Hopefully, RFID costs and capabilities will intersect with what the market needs in the near future."
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