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Can RFID Save the Day for Spinach?

Steve Dean, director of business development at RFID systems integrator Franwell, says it can—and explains why.
By Leslie K. Downey
Nov 13, 2006Poor Popeye! Along with millions of other spinach lovers, he was caught by surprise in September when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) halted the sale of all fresh spinach due to an outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli) associated with the product.

On Sep. 29, with the likely source of contamination narrowed down to a grower in California, the FDA lifted its warning on spinach, except for specific brands packaged on certain dates. However, the losses to the spinach industry had already exceeded several hundred million dollars by that point. Even with spinach back on the shelf, the industry may not soon see the revenue it once enjoyed, as consumers reach for substitutes they perceive as being safer. Can RFID save the day for Popeye and his fellow spinach lovers, and for the industry at large?

Leslie Downey
The kind of track-and-trace ability provided by RFID may be the industry's best hope, since the shortage of safety inspectors working to minimize the conditions leading to contamination will probably continue. In a Sept. 22 article entitled "At E. Coli Hunt's End, a Safety Standards Gap," the Washington Post reported that the FDA's 800 inspectors, responsible for inspecting non-meat products throughout the U.S., are able to visit a processing plant, on average, only once every few years.

As such, the article said, they "don't [have the time to] venture onto farms unless there's an outbreak." In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is staffed to inspect 6,000 processing plants daily. However, even if a legion of inspectors were on hand, there would not be enough data about spinach shipments to support an efficient recall.

How can RFID meaningfully improve this situation? At the RFID Applications 2006 conference, held in September in Washington, D.C., I posed this question to Steve Dean, director of business development at RFID systems integrator Franwell. Before joining Franwell in 1999, Dean spent more than 20 years in the fresh produce industry, first as a USDA fruit and vegetable inspector, then as general manager for a Florida-based fruit and vegetable grower-shipper.

Franwell has been a key player in a high-profile RFID trial led by the University of Florida's Research Center for Food Distribution and Retailing (CFDR). The research project was designed to demonstrate the benefits of data sharing between three fresh produce suppliers and a retailer. Known as V2 (Visibility Validated), the project involved reading various kinds of tagged produce at key points from the field to the retailer's distribution center (see Keeping Fresh Foods Fresh).

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