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EPC Tags Help COVAP Get a Leg Up on Ham Production

The cooperative is tracking ham from the slaughterhouse throughout its various preparation and curing steps.
By Rhea Wessel
Sep 04, 2009COVAP, a Spanish agricultural cooperative based in the southern region of Andalusia, is using passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags to track legs of a premium ham known as jamón ibérico (Iberian ham).

The largest industrial-agricultural cooperative in Andalusia, with reported 2008 sales of €310 million ($444 million), COVAP first began using radio frequency identification in its dairy manufacturing division. After the pilot phase, the cooperative implemented the system that controls the movements of 1,300 pallets per day. The cooperative is now tracking ham from the slaughterhouse throughout the various preparation and curing processes, and may eventually extend the application to track the meat until the point of outbound shipment. COVAP plans to keep the application running for a total of at least three years—the time it takes for one ham to be produced, and the time required to gather a full set of internal data regarding the entire production process.

Two of COVAP's interrogators are outfitted with 12-foot-tall antenna towers and mounted on wheels so they can be moved along the drying racks, which hold 60 hams.
The application got its start as one of the E.U.-funded BRIDGE ("Building Radio frequency IDentification solutions for the Global Environment") research projects, which aim to speed the adoption of RFID and EPCglobal technologies (see BRIDGE Expects to Launch Five European RFID Pilots This Fall). The COVAP pilot, conducted as part of BRIDGE Work Package 8 (focused on the application of RFID to manufacturing processes), began in November 2008 and concluded in July 2009.

Alexandra Brintrup served as the work package leader at one of the project's partner organizations, the University of Cambridge's Distributed Information and Automation Laboratory, at its Institute for Manufacturing. COVAP, she says, was chosen to be the focus of a BRIDGE project because of its previous positive experiences of employing RFID at dock doors to track long-life milk.

The cooperative wanted to expand its RFID application and participate in the BRIDGE project for a variety of reasons: to reduce handling times, enable control of products on a class-by-class basis and trace the production of each leg of ham to comply with food-safety regulations. In addition, COVAP saw the potential for radio frequency identification to help it refine its processes, which involve a large number of ham legs (as many as 300,000 each year) and a wide variety of production variables. By gaining item-level visibility from each production phase, and by mining three years of such production data, COVAP may be able to devise more efficient processes and gain a better understanding of how slight changes in production conditions can affect a ham's taste and quality.

To produce its hams, COVAP slaughters pigs, cuts them into quarters and then dries and prepares the legs, which are treated, salted and sorted depending on their weight and other factors. A ham production master determines the exact process for each batch based on a variety of factors, including the animal's original feed and the meat's PH level. The legs are then aged in temperature-controlled cellars that replicate the original conditions under which the ham was made by hand. Even a slight temperature change can impact the meat's taste, and the ham master is charged with ensuring the quality of each batch.

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