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Industry Must Promote RFID's Role in Food Safety

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to issue guidelines within three months regarding how to create a system to trace tainted food, and RFID needs to be part of the plan.
By Mark Roberti
Jul 13, 2009On July 7, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gathered with cabinet secretaries, members of Congress and food regulators at the White House. After numerous outbreaks of food-borne illness, the Obama administration wanted to publicize its commitment to food safety. As part of a plan to protect the public, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicated that in three months, it would release advice regarding how farmers, wholesalers and retailers can build systems to trace contaminated foods quickly in order to determine where an outbreak began.

Do people working on different task groups within the FDA talk to each other? The FDA has been studying how to use technology, including radio frequency identification, to track pharmaceuticals through the supply chain, and it has a deadline of March 2010 to effect a pedigree system. But I haven't heard much from the organization about using a similar approach to enabling food recalls in the event of an E. coli or salmonella outbreak.

In fact, I haven't heard anyone in the administration talk about using RFID to improve food safety. In President Barack Obama's weekly radio address of Mar. 14, for instance, he did not mention either RFID or serialization upon announcing the appointments of Dr. Margaret Hamburg as FDA commissioner and Dr. Joshua Sharfstein as principal deputy commissioner, and the creation of the President's Food Safety Working Group.

But the RFID industry has not done a good job of promoting the benefits of RFID technology in enhancing food safety and facilitating recalls (see The RFID Industry Misses the Boat on Food Safety). The reality is that no matter how much governments expand inspections, tighten regulations and promote safer business practices in an attempt to stop outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, they will continue to occur. And with the food chain becoming increasingly global, having a standards-based system to capture data cost-effectively and share that information in near-real time is going to be essential.

Bar codes will continue to be an important part of any traceability solution, but RFID is essential because data can be captured without a great deal of human labor. Tracking individual lots of food items at every point of the supply chain would require an army of people equipped with bar-code scanners. RFID, on the other hand, can capture serialized data without any human intervention. In the wet, muddy conditions of a farm, RFID is simply more effective than bar codes. And low-cost sensors are emerging to detect when food is exposed to higher-than-acceptable temperatures.

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