Managing Sell-By Dates Is Easier With RFID

Europe is trying to reduce food waste in an effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but it's a real challenge without radio frequency identification.
Published: September 16, 2019

Last week, I read an interesting article in The New York Times about a European retailer’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by cutting food waste (see The World Wastes Tons of Food. A Grocery ‘Happy Hour’ Is One Answer.). The article cites the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s statistic that about one-third of the food produced and packaged for human consumption is lost or wasted (other organizations say it’s as high as 50 percent).

The amount of waste equals 1.3 billion tons a year, worth nearly $680 billion. Scientists estimate that 8 to 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are related to food that is lost during harvesting or production, or that is wasted by consumers. “Landfills of rotting food emit methane, a gas that is roughly 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide,” the article notes.

According to writer David Segal, S-market, a grocery chain with 900 stores in Finland, puts food nearing its expiry date on sale. Food that is nearly unsellable goes on sale at every one of S-market’s 900 stores in Finland, at 30 percent off. At 9 PM on the day items are due to expire, the price is cut to 60 percent off. This is a smart way to reduce food waste and sell items that might otherwise be thrown away.

The problem is that this is a very labor-intensive and error-prone process. Staff members must pick up each item in store, manually check the date and add a sticker indicating the discount rate. It is inevitable that they will miss some items and put stickers on others that might not be discounted. RFID is ideal for managing this process because the sell-by date of each item can be stored in a database. A simple software program could be set up to pull the tag IDs for all items about to expire within two days or only one day. Employees could use the Geiger counter-like feature in an RFID handheld reader to locate those items quickly on shelves.

The U.S. Department of Defense has been researching ways in which RFID sensors could be utilized to dynamically determine the shelf life of food. So, for example, if a shipment of broccoli were left on a shipping dock in 90-degree weather, its shelf life would be shortened because the heat would cause the produce to wilt.

In addition, RFID can be used to track products from the farm to the store shelf. Notura, Norway’s largest meat producer, is employing the technology to monitor meat through its production process. At the company’s production site, tags identify the age and origin of specific animals. Then, on the cutting line, meat parts are identified according to their type, weight and nutritional characteristics.

Producers can use RFID to make sure the first produce and meat into a processing center is the first out, which can reduce waste during production. RFID can also be used to recall only items that are from a particular farm or facility that has had an issue. This can save millions—perhaps billions—of dollars per year.

Margins are thin in the food business. Spending money on technology might not seem to be a good option for some producers and grocers, but the industry should be taking a serious look at RFID to determine whether it can deliver an ROI by reducing food waste. And, oh, by the way, that would also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal.