The United States Explores Food Traceability Options

The FDA's "A New Era of Smarter Food Safety" initiative could result in RFID and other technologies being adopted to improve supply chain visibility and safety.
Published: December 8, 2019

Back in April, the acting commission of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the deputy commission announced plans to develop a “Blueprint for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety.” The FDA has just closed the period for the public to comment on its proposal, and it will unveil its plans during the coming year.

The FDA wants to move away from the manual, paper-based system now used to track food from the farm to the customer’s plate and replace it with new technologies that can automate the process. One of those is RFID, but other Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, including RF sensors, will also play a role.

“The use of new and evolving digital technologies may play a pivotal role in tracing the origin of a contaminated food to its source in minutes, or even seconds, instead of days or weeks, when contamination does occur,” the FDA says. “Access to information during an outbreak about the origin of contaminated food will help us conduct more timely root cause analysis and apply these learnings to prevent future incidents from happening in the first place.”

The FDA plans to explore opportunities and specific actions to evaluate new technologies and upgrade its abilities to rapidly track and trace food through the supply chain. The plan is to align food traceability efforts with other track-and-trace efforts, such as pilot programs focused on tracking the movements of medicines throughout the supply chain, as part of the Drug Supply Chain Security Act.

The plan is to explore the use of blockchain, sensors, IoT technologies and artificial intelligence. AIM NA’s Food Safety Committee has submitted thoughtful and well-reasoned comments to the FDA.

The AIM comments, for example, state: “The federal government should adopt standards to set the baseline content–or data points–needed to facilitate a food supply chain that is both visible and actionable. These standards should require such baseline content to be physically tied to each item entering the food supply chain in a manner that can be digitally captured. By establishing universal baseline requirements, each supply chain participant should be able to collect and share the same information (e.g. unique identifier, lot/batch, etc.) regardless of the technology or platform used.”

I agree with AIM that the FDA should not push a technology on the food industry. By establishing a set of data standards that need to be captured and tied to specific items, the FDA could allow companies to decide the most cost-effective technologies. I believe RFID will win out, because only RFID will enable companies to capture the identity of objects and shipments automatically, without a lot of additional manual labor, but it may be that companies will transition from two-dimensional bar codes to RFID and sensors.

It’s important to improve food traceability globally as well, and the United States and other nations should work together to establish data standards that allow companies to collect and share the data efficiently. I am a firm believer that improved food traceability will not only protect consumers when there is an outbreak of food-borne illness, but also improve the efficiency and profitability of all the companies in the food supply chain.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal.