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RFID Tracks Produce From Field to Fork

A U.S. fruit and vegetable supplier is employing EPC tags and interrogators to track its products as they are harvested, processed and transported to retailers, and to trace them back to the source in the event of a recall.
By Claire Swedberg
To provide a product's status, location and condition, InSync's software processes the tag data, as well as information from the scales and, if applicable, data temperature sensors. While the producer is not currently employing temperature sensors, it says it intends to do so at some point in the future. In that case, the sensor can be wired to the RFID tag on a container, and the system predefined to transmit an alert if the product temperature becomes too warm or cold for its predetermined threshold. If the temperature fluctuates outside of an acceptable range, or if a product spends too much time outside the cooler, an alert can be triggered and sent to production managers via e-mail.

The system is configurable to monitor temperatures or the time a product spends waiting outside a cooler, says Yashpaul Dogra, InSync's VP of marketing, because details such as how long a product can remain in storage, or at what temperature it must be kept, vary according to the product itself. "If you're doing berries versus leafy greens," Dogra states, "there will be a differentiation between how [the system] should be configured."

In the event of contamination, the producer can use the GreenTrace system to trace an affected product down to the exact GPS-determined field location at which it was picked. For example, a contaminated bag of lettuce could be traced back to the specific container from which the lettuce was taken prior to packaging. A retail store determines the batch number of the contaminated product and notifies the producer. The producer then accesses the GreenTrace application, locates the RFID tag ID numbers of all bins and other containers that contained produce from that particular batch, and traces the contaminated product back to the first read of its bin on the field. This enables the producer to ascertain where the product may have been, and to identify any other products that might have been in the same location at the same time.

The producer can also use the system to track the volume of products being harvested, and send notification down the supply chain to better prepare transporters, distributors and retailers about the volume of product they can expect to arrive. Better preparation can help reduce the risk of spoilage that can occur due to a bottleneck in the supply chain when unexpectedly high volumes catch operators in that chain by surprise.

"The overall goal is to bring visibility to activities that currently can't be captured," Dogra explains. That visibility is more critical with fresh produce than in other industries, since a product can begin to degrade as soon as it is harvested, and any unnecessary transportation delays or temperature fluctuations can destroy it.

Earlier this year, in response to reports of illness stemming from food contamination, producers created a marketing plan known as the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement, which was approved by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). The initiative is intended to standardize leafy green vegetable production to address contamination issues. GreenTrace, says Tim Short, InSync's VP of sales, was designed to help growers follow those guidelines.

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