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Turin Business Group Explores RFID's Potential to Add Value to Cheese

The technology would authenticate the product and track its origins—including the very grass eaten by cows supplying the milk from which the cheese is made.
By Claire Swedberg
Staff members employed an LTT handheld RFID reader to capture the unique ID number encoded to each wheel's tag, and linked that ID to data throughout the food chain—from the type and nutritional content of grass grazed to shipment of cheese to the store. Researchers selected only a few wheels of Toma cheese for tagging—from about four grazing zones . As the wheels were shipped to nearby stores, their tags were again read with the handheld interrogator, and workers updated each wheels' status to indicate it was being shipped, and to what location. Using a cellular connection, the handhelds transmitted data to the Trace Cheese server, on which software provided by 3a linked data related to the RFID reads—the date, the time and a unique ID number—with details about the product, and made it available for pilot participants to view. The participating farmers and researchers could then use a password to log onto the server via the Internet in order to access that information. In the future, the data will also be available to retailers and customers.

Although the pilot did not include tracking the cheese as it arrived at a store, the group intends to do so in 2011, as part of a larger deployment. In that case, when a wheel of Toma cheese arrives at a store, employees would utilize a handheld interrogator to read its tag's ID number. This tag-read data would be stored in the Trace Cheese server, to indicate the date and time of the product's receipt. The store management could then use that information to track its own cheese inventory and determine whether a shipment has arrived, or when the store may need to reorder, by comparing sales data with incoming RFID reads. Producers could also use the data to manage their own inventory by tracking the number of wheels that had been shipped.

Pasquale Marasco
In 2011, consumers at participating stores in Italy will be able to take a wheel of Toma cheese to a kiosk, where a built-in RFID reader will read the cheese's tag (the kiosk will also be able to scan a 2-D bar-code printed on that tag). If a customer has a mobile phone, he or she will be able to use it to photograph a bar code and upload the image to the Trace Cheese Web site, where that individual could then view details about the cheese and the origins of its milk, as well as the product's nutritional content, such as the quantity of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. In addition, an RFID-enabled kiosk will be installed next year at EatalyNY, to showcase the technology for New York consumers.

The research group had initially hoped to attach the tag directly to the cheese, thereby ensuring that it would not be removed prior to sale. However, the concept of placing the tag directly onto the cheese's rind surface raised concerns regarding potential food contamination, according to Pasquale Marasco, a senior business analyst with the Torino Wireless Foundation's business acceleration department. Ultimately, he says, the group opted to attach the tag, via adhesive, to the paper label attached to the wheel of cheese at the end of its ripening phase.

"We have demonstrated with this pilot that the tags—and, in general, the technology—can be applied in the agrifood sector," Marasco states. By further deploying the technology into stores, he says, researchers and the Turin Chamber of Commerce hope to "authenticate the product and promote it in strong relation with the land." How and when it will be deployed will be decided in 2011, he says, as pilot participants review the results.

In 2007, Torino Wireless, in collaboration with the chamber of commerce, also tested RFID technology to track wine bottles. The system was tested at three Piedmont winemakers, to track a limited number of bottles using 3a software and LTT passive tags and readers. The goal, Marasco says, was to determine whether passive 13.56 MHz RFID tags could be read in a supply chain environment—and the results, he reports, were favorable. The researchers may also discuss further wine-tracking pilots or deployments next year.

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