Fresh Spinach, Anyone?

By Mark Roberti

The recent outbreak of E. coli in bags of fresh spinach in the United States highlighted the need for better traceability in the food chain—which RFID will one day be able to deliver.


Last month, 199 people in Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin and other states became sick when they ate spinach tainted with Escherichia coli (or E. coli, as it’s more commonly known), a species of bacteria that lives in the intestines of animals (and people). One person died from the outbreak.

On Sept. 14, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert to consumers about the outbreak of E. coli in fresh produce. Early evidence suggested bagged fresh spinach might be the source of the outbreak, and the FDA advised consumers not to eat it. One produce manufacturer decried the blanket warning on bagged fresh spinach, saying it was like asking all consumers to stop driving because one car company had a recall. An industry group said the industry stood to lose upwards of $100 million as good spinach went bad while the FDA hunted for the source of the E. coli.

It took the FDA two weeks to trace the outbreak back to Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista, Calif. The company recalled all its bagged spinach, but the damage to the industry—and 199 people—had already been done.

Outbreaks of food-borne illnesses will probably never be eliminated, but clearly we need to do a better job of tracing the source of such illnesses when they occur. RFID could help today by tracking bulk shipments of produce and the reusable containers they’re often shipped in. Some day, the technology might even be cheap enough to be placed in a label on every bag of spinach, enabling authorities to locate the source of an outbreak in hours, rather than weeks.

I once told a gathering of privacy advocates that if there were a system by which I could choose to have the unique serial number in an RFID tag in the meat I buy recorded by the supermarket, I would do it. Why? Because I have two young sons, and the last thing I want is for them to get sick or die from eating tainted meat. Since the store already knows what I buy by associating the bar code on my purchases with my loyalty card, they aren’t getting any new information about me. And if they could call me up in the event of a recall and let me know the meat in my freezer was bad, that would save my children’s lives.

I don’t know if RFID will ever get cheap enough to be used on a bag of spinach or a package of chopped meat, but given human powers of innovation, I suspect it eventually will. The U.S. military is even working on low-cost sensors that could be combined with RFID transponders and put in packaging to transmit a warning if they detected a pathogen while reading an RFID tag. I’ll bet there are a lot of people across the United States who wish there were RFID tags able to detect E. coli today.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.