In Pursuit of Fresher, Safer Foods and Drugs

By Jennifer Zaino

Soon, RFID-monitoring perishables in transit and storage will be the new normal.

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For more than 10 years, RFID vendors, logistics providers, research organizations, and food and pharmaceutical firms have been developing and piloting the use of RFID to monitor perishable goods in the cold chain. The stakes were high and the challenges formidable. The goal was to track the temperature of perishables in real time during transit, to control exposure to excessive heat or cold and enable companies to be proactive should an incident occur.

Temperature fluctuations of just a few degrees can lead to spoiled goods and thousands of dollars in damages. But early RFID sensor tags suffered from temperature and time-keeping inaccuracies, and when those issues were addressed, tag costs remained high. And, like companies in other industries, food and pharmaceutical firms were reluctant to embrace an emerging technology.

Photo: iStockphoto | RFID Journal

Today, RFID has a bright future in the cold chain. RFID sensor technology has matured, early adopters in the food and pharmaceutical sectors have proved the business case, and government regulations are propelling adoption.

According to a 2013 Frost & Sullivan study of RFID in the global cold-chain market, from 2014 through 2020 the technology will grow an estimated 25 percent in food supply-chain management. This area constitutes almost 80 percent of the total RFID cold-chain market, says Nandini Bhattacharya, a Frost & Sullivan senior research analyst. Growth has been triggered by key regulations such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) for traceability and similar European Union mandates designed to facilitate recalls, as well as the FDA's Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) requirements that food handlers develop strategies to internally manage food-safety processes, she says.

While the pharmaceutical and biomedical cold chain comprises just 20 percent of the total RFID cold-chain market, Bhattacharya expects it will see a high growth rate of 45 percent to 50 percent by 2020.

Joining the Food Cold Chain
Meeting government regulations is not the only reason RFID is heating up in the food cold chain. Monitoring perishable foods is smart business. Logistics providers want to improve service for their clients, and retailers want to reduce waste and retain customers.

That's why, in 2013, Hy-Vee, a chain of 236 supermarkets in the Midwest, and its wholly owned subsidiary Perishable Distributors of Iowa (PDI), began RFID-tracking shipments of fresh meat, seafood and dairy from its suppliers to its distribution centers. And that's why Hy-Vee also began tracking the temperature of perishables from PDI DCs to Hy-Vee retail stores.

Since this spring, Hy-Vee has been using TempTRIP ultrahigh-frequency RFID tags to monitor additional temperature-sensitive products, including all frozen goods, deli meats, prepared salads, ice cream and produce, says Kyle Oberender, PDI's director of safety. What's more, he says, "we now have nearly half of our retail stores connected online with readers, with the other half to be wrapped up around the end of the calendar year. Procedures, policies and training have been more fine-tuned, and the overall outlook is very good with the results we are seeing."

This will mark the first time RFID readers have been installed at every one of a supermarket's retail stores for outbound-to-retail temperature tracking, says TempTRIP CTO Leland Curkendall. "Traditionally, it's been from the supplier to the distribution centers," he says. With the retail RFID infrastructure in place, it becomes easier for store managers to make smart merchandising decisions to support customer retention.

Hy-Vee is tracking the temperatures of perishables from its distribution centers to retail stores, to enable store managers to make smart merchandising decisions to support customer retention (photo: Perishable Distributors of Iowa).

Say, for example, an RFID read at a store shows that one shipment of blueberries had experienced temperature variation exposures that were enough to significantly affect shelf life. If the affected blueberries have only five days of shelf life left rather than the expected 10, the store manager could put them out at a discounted price so they would move quickly, Curkendall says. That way, everyone wins—the store doesn't take the big hit it would have if the berries went bad and remained unsold, and the customer gets a good deal, too.

"If you can keep 1 percent of customers from switching because they didn't like your produce, that's a bigger play than simply rejecting spoiled products," Curkendall says. "By limiting the stress of acceptable incoming products, grocers will have better products to attract and retain customers, and customers will have a more favorable experience with the products when they get them home."

RFID temperature-tracking solutions are being deployed worldwide. In Sweden, for example, SydGrönt, which facilitates sales, logistics and distribution of produce from farmers in southern Sweden to major grocery chains, is using CAEN RFID's semipassive UHF logger tags and easy2log software. On a large scale, manual temperature loggers aren't useful, says SydGrönt's IT manager, Martin Dahn, in a YouTube video about the project. RFID automates the process, making it very easy.

A new division of a large third-party logistics provider has multiple RFID cold-chain trials under way for its global network of growers and the groceries, restaurants and other venues they supply, says Michael McCartney, managing principal at QLM Consulting, which specializes in cold-chain management. While McCartney is not at liberty to name the logistics provider, he says, "They are very interested in providing premium services to their suppliers."

New Cold-Chain Applications
Cold-chain monitoring doesn't stop when perishables arrive at retail stores. To ensure food safety, most states require stores to keep track of temperatures in coolers and freezers, says TempTRIP's Curkendall. Typically, employees read temperature gauges on these cases twice a day, and write down their readings to provide an audit trail for regulatory agencies. The manual process is time-consuming and error-prone, he says.

TempTRIP is piloting a cooler- and freezer-monitoring solution with two U.S. supermarket chains, which Curkendall can't name at present. TempTRIP installed UHF RFID tags in the cases; employees remove the tags, take them to the stockroom to be interrogated by a handheld reader, and then replace the tags in the cooler.

To facilitate the process, the company is developing a key fob RFID reader that employees can attach to their key chains or belt loops. When the key fob is waved over a UHF RFID tag installed in a case, it will read and immediately send the log data (date, time and temperatures) and cooler ID via Bluetooth to an application on an Android mobile phone or tablet, which will upload the data to TempTRIP's website. Then, the tags will reset and restart. "All the results are on the Internet and can be seen from anywhere," Curkendall says. "This approach decreases transcription errors, increases accuracy, decreases manual workloads and provides a good audit trail for regulatory agencies." The device should be available first thing next year, he says.

TempTRIP is also running home-delivery trials in the United States and Europe with some unnamed retailers. Tags are placed in outgoing bags at a retail store or distribution center, and are later removed by the delivery driver so they can be reused. Right now, the tag data has to be uploaded to a Web application when the driver returns, unless he or she has a handheld reader in the truck. Curkendall says the key-fob readers, in conjunction with mobile device software, will make this option more attractive to potential customers. Drivers will be able to verify that food temperature ranges have been stable before they deliver products.

This shows consumers the retail brand cares enough to monitor their couriers and create an audit trail to ensure compliance with temperature specifications, Curkendall says. "Home delivery is really no different in a way from delivery to distribution centers," he says. "The same kinds of things [that affect food temperature ranges] can go wrong, like doors left open on a truck or refrigerators not as cold as they should be."

Another RFID cold-chain application on the horizon is thermal mapping of DC cold rooms to determine the location of hot and cold spots, McCartney says. This allows distributors to store perishables that are more sensitive to high temperatures in the colder areas and those that are less sensitive in warmer areas.

"There is a four- to five-degree shift in any given cold room," McCartney says, and research has shown that a 2 percent change in temperature can reduce perishables' shelf life by 50 percent. Real-time active RFID systems that relay temperature information wirelessly are more efficient than having employees manually poke around with temperature recorders (and likely going only as far as their arms can reach) to understand whether products are being stored in the right places.

"Oftentimes, it's a big revelation for [companies] to see wide swings in temperatures in any given cold room," McCartney says. "This is a huge area where there are a lot of efficiencies to be gained." One brand-name supplier of organic produce has already redesigned its entire cold-storage distribution system to take advantage of the information RFID is providing, he says.

Cost of Cold-Chain Control
Cost has been an issue when it comes to taking advantage of RFID for food cold-chain applications. But the emergence of battery-assisted passive (BAP) RFID has helped in addressing this, Frost & Sullivan's Bhattacharya says.

BAP is less expensive than active RFID, and it has technological advantages over sensor-embedded passive RFID, which can be used for cold-chain monitoring in smaller areas and for simpler applications that require recording of maximum and minimum temperatures.

"Recent technological advances make it possible for BAP tags and readers to have high memory, higher read range, faster read rates, and better performance in the presence of liquid, metal and concrete, and in extreme temperature conditions," Bhattacharya says. "All this is available at a much lesser cost, which makes the total cost of acquisition affordable in medium and large projects. The advantages over passive and active RFID make BAP a hot technology choice for cold chain at present."

Still, margins in the food industry are tight, says Stefano Coluccini, CMO at CAEN RFID, so companies are cautious to avoid any unessential expenses. For premium products, it makes sense to incur extra costs, he says. Chocolate maker Lindt & Sprüngli, for example, uses CAEN's temperature technology to assure the correct transport environment for its products.

Hy-Vee and PDI require suppliers to purchase TempTRIP's read-write tags. PDI receives more tags than it needs for outbound deliveries to stores, so it has worked out a return-refund arrangement with TempTRIP, Oberender says. This helps PDI recoup some of the cost of its RFID infrastructure. When necessary, PDI works out funding issues with its suppliers.

While cost can never be ignored, what can't be underestimated as a key factor in moving RFID forward in the food cold chain is that "the importance of freshness continues to be at the forefront of everyone's mind," McCartney says. Walmart and other big retailers, he notes, are beginning to push product sustainability as a scorecard measure for suppliers. "Temperature variation is a key component of how fresh things really can be kept, and [these retailers] are looking for any type of supply-chain optimization to reduce shrink and increase freshness," he says. "When it comes to fruits and vegetables and other perishables, RFID offers a huge uplift in managing the temperature of those assets throughout the cold chain."

Using RFID presents the opportunity "to not just control shrink [from overripe produce], but reduce overall food waste," McCartney adds. More than 36 million tons of food ends up in landfills, where it breaks down to produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Businesses that accumulate that waste have to pay haulers to dispose of their trash. The FDA cites another economic benefit: Companies that donate wholesome, edible food to food banks or food rescue organizations can claim tax benefits, as well as feed those in need.

It may have taken 10 years to get here, but all the pieces are now in place for widespread adoption of RFID in the cold chain. "As a result of mandates and regulations, participants in the supply-chain ecosystem need to adopt cold-chain monitoring solutions," Frost & Sullivan's Bhattacharya says. "Also, due to higher consumer awareness, supply-chain participants from the manufacturer to the seller are now increasingly using cold-chain monitoring technologies. Technological advances, price decline of RFID tags and convergence of multiple technologies with RFID will boost adoption of RFID in the short term, mid-term and long term."

RFID Proves Its Value in the Pharma Cold Chain
When it comes to transporting temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals, biomedical supplies and other life-sciences products, RFID has become an invaluable tool. A number of logistics and cargo services companies, including DHL Global Forwarding, Medlog, Panalpina and Southwest Airlines Cargo, rely on RFID temperature solutions to monitor the condition of products during transit or storage. RFID-tracking shipments improves customer service, ensures the safety and efficacy of products that can impact patients' health, and enables companies to meet government regulations.

By summer 2013, DHL Global Forwarding's LifeConEx group had deployed an RFID infrastructure at more than 15 certified life-sciences stations worldwide, to apply and read sensor tags on containers and pallets of temperature-sensitive health-care and pharmaceutical products. Each sensor tag, manufactured by CAEN RFID, consists of an EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency RFID inlay integrated with a battery-powered temperature logger. The tag's identification number and temperature recordings are captured and then forwarded via a wireless connection to DHL's LifeTrack platform, where the data is interpreted. If temperature readings have deviated from acceptable levels, the system alerts the Global Monitoring Team, which keeps all stakeholders informed in near real time.

Today, DHL Global Forwarding has more than 68 major life-sciences stations worldwide equipped with RFID technology. "It has almost tripled," says LifeConEx CEO David Bang. "What our customers are constantly looking for is visibility, compliance and proactive intervention," he says. "The more dynamically we use technology to offer that to them, the better the customer value is." A large biotech company, whose name Bang says he can't publicly disclose, has leveraged the service and—in conjunction with timely interventions based on temperature readings and process-management advances—"reduced discarded or damaged products by 30 percent."

DHL Global Forwarding is now offering some customers active GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and GPS (Global Positioning System) devices for more real-time tracking. Last year, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration ruled that small cargo and consumer devices can remain on, in airplane mode, during flights. "There are clearer guidelines now in that area, which promotes the ability to work on more real-time technologies… and promotes a more automated understanding of where a shipment is," Bang says.

A technology-agnostic approach is necessary, Bang notes, because not every technology can be applied equally everywhere. Some geographic areas, for example, may not have the ability to put an RFID infrastructure in place, "so maybe automatically uploading data through a GSM or GPS network is better and more efficient," he says. The same customer might use multiple technologies to monitor the same shipment, he explains, to ensure the best visibility and intervention options.

DHL Global Forwarding is also using temperature data to help customers be proactive about future shipments. Customers, for example, could re-engineer their packaging and processes based on real data versus assumptions, Bang says, often in ways that can save them money.

Photos: iStockphoto

Government Regulations Spur Adoption
DHL Global Forwarding's customers also have access to all temperature readings relevant to delivered shipments. They can produce reports for clients and regulatory agencies to show the products were shipped at safe temperatures. Bang and other cold-chain experts believe pharmaceutical and biomedical suppliers will increasingly turn to RFID and other technologies to support regulatory requirements.

"If you distill things to a basic level, regulatory bodies want organizations to demonstrate that they have a risk-based approach when it comes to handling pharmaceuticals or biotech or diagnostic products," Bang says. "The technologies we are talking about help us and our customers have a better understanding of what risks are out there and more proactively, holistically and comprehensively address them."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's track-and-trace mandate doesn't specify that RFID must be used for drug serialization as an anticounterfeiting method. But some pharmaceutical companies are considering using RFID to identify prescription drugs. "I can't think of something that would be as cost-effective [as RFID] to use," says Michael McCartney, managing principal at QLM Consulting, an RFID consulting firm that specializes in cold-chain management. "And if you have to track [drug pedigrees to combat counterfeiting and fraud], you might as well monitor the cold chain, too."

Stefano Coluccini, CMO at CAEN RFID, agrees. "If you want to use serialization effectively, you need to use RFID," he says, because it's not practical to rely on 2-D bar codes that would require manually scanning millions of drug containers at every checkpoint. "Already some of the most advanced pharmaceutical companies are piloting RFID for serialization, and as they build that infrastructure, having RFID temperature loggers will be more natural, too," he says. "They can use the same technology for serialization and cold-chain monitoring."