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University Takes a Fresh Approach to RFID

The University of Florida's Center for Food Distribution and Retailing is finding ways to make RFID tags work on produce shipments and keep perishable food from spoiling.
By Jonathan Collins
The center has carried out tests to track trans-U.S. produce shipments using RFID tags equipped with sensors that monitor and record the shipments’ environmental conditions. The center also investigated how temperature changes affected the condition of perishable foods in transit.

"We know 12 percent loss [of perishable foods in the retail supply chain] is typical. That means billions of dollars a year [are] wasted in the $500 billion U.S. supermarket industry alone," says Emond. When air shipment is involved, dramatic swings in environmental conditions can render as much as a third of fresh food shipments unsuitable for sale by the time they reach their final destinations. Much of that waste could be prevented if shipments could be better monitored en route for environmental conditions—Edmond claims—and, if needed, action taken.

The center has special rooms that it can use to measure the impact of temperature and humidity on RFID systems.

Shipments have traditionally been monitored using a data logger, a small electronic device that records temperatures from attached sensors. To retrieve a logger’s temperature, a company must remove the device, attach a cable to it and download the data to a computer. In order to keep the temperature record accurate, therefore, data is downloaded from a data logger only at the end of the trip. But with an RFID-based sensor, the data can be collected without removing the device from the shipment. "This makes more sense because it is during the trip that you want to make the decision about whether a change in temperature has spoiled or reduced the lifespan of the food. We can see in the future that a decision on any shipment could be made during the trip just by interrogating the tag," says Emond.

In addition to alerting companies to potentially damaging treatment of a shipment, knowing that shipment’s environmental history can also help companies better manage the way they sell perishable foods. For example, if a retailer received two shipments of the same produce on consecutive days but only the first shipment had been kept at optimum temperature throughout the chain, he could decide to put out the earliest shipment for sale first since it would have a shorter shelf life. In addition, the exact shelf life of any shipment of produce could be calculated if the temperature it had been kept at was known. This could bring flexibility to "Best Before" or "Sell By" dates, which could be changed according to the product’s in-transit temperature treatment.

One trial carried out by the CFDR found that if the cold chain was broken by allowing the temperature of strawberries to get too high for just nine hours during a two-week shipment period, the load would be unfit for sale by the time it arrived at the retailer.

Although water can interfere with the performance of an RFID system, CFDR has also found ways to use RFID's sensitivity to moisture as an asset.

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