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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
During the pilot, COVAP and its technical solutions partner, AT4 Wireless, performed extensive trials before selecting an RFID inlay and designing a suitable tag able to withstand the meat-processing process, which includes burning the ham's surface to control fungal growth. The testing was carried out at AT4 Wireless' lab and COVAP's facilities, where potential tags were tested on the various processes. Germark was eventually selected as the tag provider, and is currently working on an upgraded version of the tag.

As part of the ongoing ham-tracking project, COVAP has already attached the first tag version to approximately 5,500 legs of ham. The cooperative plans to increase the number of hams it tags to the total number produced once the updated version of the tag becomes available.

Alexandra Brintrup
Initially, the tag had special protective material on both sides. However, COVAP and Germark think the new tag can be designed with this material only on the side affixed to the meat. This, says Santiago Tirado, COVAP's IT director, could reduce the tag's cost.

After the pig is quartered and cleaned, COVAP ties the RFID tag to the ankle of the ham leg, and also applies the same sort of bar-coded label on which it had solely relied during its previous ham-leg tracking process. COVAP will continue using bar codes as a backup system indefinitely, Tirado says. "Both systems are compatible, and the bar code does not produce any real extra cost," he states. "There is no reason to eliminate it."

A unique ID number is the only data stored on the tags. Further information regarding the ham, including medical information about the originating pig, is kept on a database, linked to the ID number. The cooperative employs a variety of interrogators from Intermec to read the tags at about five different points of the production process. The initial tag reading is performed in the slaughterhouse, directly after tagging. The information is used for inventory purposes, as well as to commence the tracking process. The product then moves along a conveyor through a shaping tunnel, in which the blood is squeezed out. Before the legs enter the tunnel, an RFID interrogator reads their tags. Next, the hams are salted, their tags read once more before that process begins.

"At every read point, we need different antenna types and configurations for the readers," Tirado explains. "This is not a plug-and-play application. We did extensive trials to select and design the readers. We decided on a combination of near-field and long-field antennas."

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