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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

According the published report, the hardware used in the project consisted of off-the-shelf RFID readers and semi-passive temperature-sensing tags currently available commercially, including CAEN RFID's A927Z RFID and RT0005 tags, a PsionWorkabout Pro 2 handheld attached to a CAEN A528 RFID reader and a Motorola Solutions MC9090-Z handheld reader, although Uysal says any EPC UHF RFID reader would work. He declined to indicate the results of performance tests on the tags, however he says two tag-reader combinations were recommended to provide the best performance in the report now being reviewed by the DOD.

Researchers used a server dedicated to the standalone system on which the software they developed operated. Tags could be read periodically to capture sensor data, and the tags logged temperature measurements in the meantime at periodic intervals. If the system were implemented by the DOD or a company in the food industry, the data could help route goods from distribution centers. For instance, when the goods arrived at a warehouse, Uysal says, handheld or fixed readers could capture the unique ID number and sensor data from a tag applied to a loaded pallet, and that data would be sent to the dedicated server operating the system software. The software links the ID number to the type of product on the pallet as well as its history, such as when it was first packaged, and the temperature conditions it was exposed to.

When an order is then placed for specific goods, Uysal says, the software could determine how long the items would take to reach the location for which the rations were ordered, and thereby calculate which pallet load should be shipped. That pallet is then indicated on the shipping order, with a human-readable number linked to the RFID tag's EPC number, thereby enabling staff to identify the right pallet either visually or with an RFID reader.

The solution moves a step beyond the concept of First in First Out (FIFO), in which goods are shipped simply according to the dates at which they were received, or even First Expired First Out (FEFO), according to the expiration data assigned to that item based on optimum conditions. The solution has large implications for the commercial market, says Uysal, and he hopes to communicate the benefits to members of the food industry such as retailers and producers.

During storage at 40, 80, 100, 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, rations such as Mango Peach Applesauce underwent changes in the appearance.
According to a report published in 2012 by researchers working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans discarded $165.6 billion worth of food, and most of that waste was due to spoilage before the food can be consumed. In the future, he envisions a system in which stores could use (and provide for their customers) handheld readers linked to a server with software that identifies an item's actual expiration date based on its storage and transportation conditions. In that way they would be able to identify very quickly whether the product needs to be sold right away, and perhaps even discounted for consumers to ensure it gets to the buyer's plate before it spoils.

Uysal adds that not only retailers, but producers serve to benefit from such a solution by ensuring less merchandise is wasted, and also reducing the cost of shipping goods that may spoil before being sold. Uysal will be presenting the results of the study at RFID Journal LIVE! 2014 in Orlando, Fla.

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