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Norwegian Group Tracks Super-Chilled Meat

The project was designed to study the ability of RFID sensor tags to track the temperatures of fresh legs of lamb as they were transported by truck from slaughterhouse to distribution center.
By Claire Swedberg
In addition, the system included the use of 2-D bar-coded labels taped to the sensor tags, which could be read using a mobile phone when the truck was loaded with pallets of lamb at the slaughterhouse, and again when the meat was received at the DC. In this way, the EPCIS system would retain a timestamp indicating when the product left the facility and when it was received. The researchers could have utilized the RFID tags to record these events, Vevle says, but they instead opted to use bar codes, which would enable staff members to read an ID number via a mobile phone rather than requiring handheld interrogators.

The truck's reading unit, known as the Hrafn Online Container, consisted of a CAEN A941 reader and an Owasys GPS- and GSM-enabled industrial computer powered by an automotive battery. The reader was intended to capture each tag's unique RFID number, as well as temperature sensor data, every 10 minutes. To accomplish this goal, the unit was placed within the truck, on the floor, in the space in which a pallet would have been loaded. The solution was designed so that whenever the reader captured data from the tags, the Owasys computer then forwarded that information, along with the truck's GPS coordinates, to the EPCIS system on a standalone back-end system, via a GSM cellular radio, transmitting through the truck's fiberglass walls.

Web-based software provided by Hrafn was used to monitor the meat temperatures in real time, from a remote location.

Once the product was delivered to the Trondheim DC the following morning, the tags were removed from the product and truck, and were brought to Sintef's Fisheries and Aquaculture lab. According to the company, the test results are still being analyzed.

During the transport, the reader received data from only three of the 13 temperature sensor tags. Vevle says that the group expected to find that only some of the sensors would be readable, given the difficulty for UHF RF signals to pass through items that contain lots of water, such as meat, especially when densely pack together. Anticipating this transmission challenge, researchers had chosen the tags that also acted as data loggers, thereby recording every temperature reading taken throughout the trip. Once the equipment and the sensors were removed from the vehicle at the Trondheim DC, the RFID equipment was set up again at the Sintef lab, to retrieve all of the temperature data, including data that was not transmitted to the reader while the meat was in transit.

Researchers were unable to collect the Hrafn Online Container's GPS position of the transport vehicle, during this particular test, because of a human error in placement the antenna. "The concept, though, showed how location, temperature and time, in a very scalable way, can be collected and monitored for cold-chain applications," Vevle says.

The analysis of the results is expected to be finished by Dec. 31, Vevle says, by which time the group expects to have determined whether the proper temperatures were maintained within the truck, and whether the online monitoring was found to be beneficial. According to Vevle, the research group found that using the RFID tags for tracking the temperature condition in the truck in real time "was overkill." In the future, he says, the group will more likely only read the RFID tags' stored sensor data after they are removed from the truck. "The conclusions made were overall very positive regarding the use of temperature tags for securing quality and documenting extended lifetime for products."

In January 2012, Vevle says, Hrafn plans to participate in a second study, intended to track the temperatures of bakery items as they are shipped in chilled containers from a bakery to distribution centers.

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