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DOD Considers RFID-based Solutions for Tracking Food's Shelf Life

A recent report written by a team of researchers describes how RFID technology, in conjunction with algorithms they developed, can be used to track the temperature conditions of rations, and calculate the spoilage rate and therefore shipment schedule.
By Claire Swedberg

The first phase of the project began in 2008 (see Researchers Seek to Reduce Wastage for First-Strike Rations) and consisted of creating the algorithms that would enable the software to calculate shelf life, as well as testing the available off-the-shelf models of semi-passive RFID sensor tags. The project had initially been intended to end in December 2012, but was extended nearly a year so it could measure how long it took for the food to spoil. The second phase studied Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) as well as First Strike Rations (FSRs), which are lighter in weight. MREs and FSRs consist of prepared foods (for example, beef ravioli in meat sauce and pork sausage in cream gravy ) that are vacuum-packed in pouches made of plastic film. The foods are packaged and treated with preservatives such as ascorbic acid (vitamin C) so that they have shelf life of up to three years for MREs and two years for FSRs. The Defense Logistics Agency buys approximately 30 million MREs annually for all of the U.S. armed forces, and spoilage costs the U.S. military millions of dollars a year.

Despite a common perception among members of the military as well as the general public that MREs and FSRs have shelf life that can last for years, or even decades, the researchers demonstrated that MREs and FSRs can actually spoil. The team measured shelf life based on sensory or nutritional degradation of the meal such as flavor or aroma changes or textural alterations due to water migration from one part of the food item to another.

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UF's Jeffrey Brecht
Ways to extend the shelf life and how to best handle fresh fruits and vegetables were also tested. The group worked with broccoli, romaine lettuce and vine-ripened tomatoes, says Jeffrey Brecht, co-team leader and director of the Center for Food Distribution and Retailing at University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Science. "We investigated modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) and ethylene scrubbing as two possible ways to overcome what we hypothesized to be incompatibility problems with other fruit and vegetables shipped in the mixed loads."

Brecht says the group found that MAP would allow vine-ripened tomatoes to be transported at higher temperatures that avoid chilling injury and associated loss of flavor. "For broccoli and romaine lettuce, we found that the problem was actually that the quality specifications don't address the freshness of those products at the time the marine containers are loaded." He adds, "We also showed that MAP in general mitigates potential problems with ethylene produced by one product negatively affecting another product."

The project's second phase also tested hardware as well as the software that uses the temperatures and shelf-life algorithms to identify which rations get shipped when and where in order to get them to the troops in time. So far, the system has been tested in temperature-controlled labs, but not in a real-world setting. That kind of pilot could be approved by the DOD if it determines to move forward with the technology.

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