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Hawaii Plans Trace-Back Program for Fresh Food

Beginning in November, three of the state's farms will begin using EPC Gen 2 RFID tags so farmers, retailers and distributors can monitor product movement and trace problem produce back to its source.
By Claire Swedberg
Oct 24, 2007About one year ago, a flood in Kauai caused runoff water from a cow pasture to contaminate lettuce growing in a field below. That lettuce, subsequently served in Hawaiian restaurants, sickened at least eight diners. Many of those affected were tourists from the mainland, who ate at number of different restaurants and didn't show any symptoms until after leaving the islands, and it was several months before the state's Department of Health was able to trace the contaminated produce back to a particular farm. By that time, all the affected lettuce had already been consumed, and there was little that could be done.

With this in mind, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture may be the first U.S. state agency to launch a pilot of RFID tracking designed to help farmers, distributors and retailers track their produce through the supply chain, and to allow for traceability in the case of contamination.

Jeff Talezaar
Beginning in November, three Hawaiian farms will begin employing EPC Gen 2 RFID tags to track the produce they ship as it moves throughout the supply chain. The pilot is a part of Hawaii's Seal of Quality effort to improve the traceability of fresh food. The Seal of Quality program is funded with $450,000 from the Economic Development Alliance of Hawaii (EDAC), which oversees private nonprofit economic growth associations, and $50,000 from the USDA-run Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program (FSMIP). The FSMIP provides matching funds to state departments of agriculture to assist in exploring new market opportunities for U.S. food and agricultural products, and to encourage research and innovation aimed at improving the efficiency and performance of the U.S. marketing system. The pilot program, according to John Ryan, administrator for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture's quality-assurance division, will provide an audit trail and help farmers, retailers and distributors monitor the movement of fresh produce.

The trial will track tomatoes grown at Sugarland Farms, a 2,000-acre farm on Oahu; lettuce from Hamakua Springs, a smaller grower on the Big Island of Hawaii; and strawberries from Kula Country Farms on Maui. Armstrong Produce Ltd., a distributor in Honolulu, will receive tagged cases of the produce and send them to two Foodland supermarkets located on Oahu.

According to Ryan, the pilot is a cooperative effort with Lowry Computer Products and GlobeRanger to enable the Hawaii Department of Agriculture to monitor shipment data on a server hosted by the state. Lowry is providing systems integration for the pilot, while GlobeRanger is supplying its iMotion software, which connects reader data to the state-hosted server. In addition, paper products company Weyerhaeuser will attach RFID tags to the cardboard boxes it supplies to Sugarland and Hamakua Springs in the future, and has already provided the Department of Agriculture with RFID technology training at the company's RFID center in the city of Federal Way, Washington. The participants will use Motorola RFID interrogators, but Lowry has not yet decided which tag manufacturer will supply the tags used for the pilot.

The three farms were chosen because they represented a variety of crops and farm sizes in Hawaii. Most Hawaiian farms are considerably smaller than those in the continental United States. Lettuce, strawberries and tomatoes, Ryan notes, are all harvested during the winter, when the pilot will be underway.

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