Protecting the Food Supply

By Mark Roberti

Greater regulation might be required to protect the food supply, and if the government takes the initiative to encourage the use of RFID technology, it would ease the pain of compliance.

It's not every day in the United States that industry leaders embrace government regulation, so this headline in the July 31 edition of The New York Times caught my eye: "Amid Salmonella Case, Food Industry Seems Set to Back Greater Regulation."

The story read: "As they tally the financial losses from the largest food-borne outbreak of illness in the last decade, produce businesses now show signs of embracing broader regulations for traceability."

It's not difficult to understand why the heads of fresh produce companies feel the need to do something. In early June, when people began falling ill from eating food contaminated with salmonella, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initially announced the problem was certain types of raw tomatoes. The agency issued a warning against eating those tomatoes, causing growers to lose more than $100 million, according to the United Fresh Produce Association.

Then, in mid-July, the FDA discovered the same strain of salmonella on jalapeño peppers from Mexico, and later reported that it also found the strain on serrano peppers at a farm in that country. The fresh produce industry is concerned about future outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, and about consumer confidence—hence, the openness to regulation.

Companies tend to oppose regulation because it increases the cost of doing business, but the U.S. government could ease the pain of complying with such rules by putting up some initial funding for a track-and-trace system using radio frequency identification technologies. This would be good for the produce industry, as well as for consumers.

The produce industry employs a great deal of reusable plastic containers. The government could purchase several million tags at a discounted price, which could then be placed on these containers. The tags wouldn't last forever, but they would be cost-effective because they would survive a dozen or more trips through the supply chain.

The FDA could also work with EPCglobal to set up an industry-based EPC Information Services (EPCIS) that would allow produce growers, shippers and retailers to share information. This data would then be stored in a secure database, but would be easily retrievable in the event of a problem.

The government could give companies—particularly small firms—grants to purchase handheld readers that would work in the fields, then require that companies use the savings they would achieve through better supply-chain management to fund future equipment purchases. The system could be built fairly cheaply, and could overcome concerns small companies might have about being forced to purchase expensive new technology. Larger companies might be eager to adopt such a system to reduce their potential liability in the event of a recall, and to shore up consumer confidence in a badly battered industry.

How much would such a system cost? It's hard to say without knowing how many growers and shippers there are, but I would bet $100 million in funding would go a long way. That's peanuts for the federal government, and state governments might be willing to chip in, too.

If the government were to go this route, regulation would not be a burden, and we'd wind up with less spoilage in the supply chain—and a safer food supply. The technology does exist, and companies have already proven it works under the harsh conditions of the fields (bar codes don't function in such environments because they fall off the plastic containers, get covered in mud and can't be read).

All that's needed to make this vision a reality is leadership, some common sense in Washington—granted, that's asking a lot—and an industry-wide approach. This is the kind of approach to regulation that businesses can embrace.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.