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Hy-Vee Supermarkets Track Perishables to Ensure Freshness

Suppliers include RFID temperature tags in shipments to the retailer's distribution centers, and the DCs reuse the tags to monitor goods en route to the stores.
By Jennifer Zaino
Jul 13, 2014

Most consumers have had the frustrating and costly experience of finding their milk spoiled or their lettuce wilted before the "use by" date printed on the packaging. That's because the freshness dates of dairy, produce and other perishable groceries are calculated on the assumption that the item has stayed within appropriate temperature boundaries during its journey from supplier to distribution center to retailer. But it's not uncommon for perishables to be exposed to significant temperature variations during transit, which can impair product shelf life and quality.

It's a problem grocery retailers and their distribution arms have been trying to tackle for years. Hy-Vee, a chain of 236 supermarkets in the Midwest, and Perishable Distributors of Iowa (PDI), a wholly owned subsidiary of Hy-Vee, began cold-chain monitoring roughly a decade ago. Some suppliers would attach a single-use digital temperature recorder to each shipment. When the shipment arrived at a PDI distribution center dock door, an employee would take the temperature-tracking device to the warehouse office and download the data from it. PDI developed algorithms based on exposure percentages to automatically determine from the data whether a shipment passed or failed. The system would alert employees if a supervisor needed to be called to investigate whether the shipment should be accepted or refused.

Employees automatically download tag data at a PDI distribution dock door, and then run algorithms to determine product freshness on the spot. (Photos: Perishable Distributors of Iowa)
But the hike from any one of PDI's 54 dock doors to the office to download the shipment's information could tack five minutes or more onto the receiving process, says Kyle Oberender, PDI's director of safety. Oberender wanted to streamline the receiving process and take cold-chain monitoring to the next level: tracking the temperature of perishables from PDI DCs to Hy-Vee retail stores.

To accomplish 100 percent cold-chain monitoring using a closed-loop model, Oberender wanted to be able to clear and reset the temperature tags. TempTrip's RFID solution met this requirement. "For me," he says, "RFID is the only solution to be able to do 100 percent monitoring, because the tag can be reused and it can be efficient as well."

In July 2013, PDI began receiving RFID-tagged perishables at its Hy-Vee DC, in Ankeny, Iowa. Today, roughly 97 percent of dairy, fresh meat and seafood suppliers include one or more TempTrip ultrahigh-frequency RFID tags with each shipment. "Basically, we are running at full speed at the Hy-Vee DC for all fresh items," Oberender says.

PDI recently RFID-enabled a second, larger DC, in Chariton, Iowa, which is beginning to receive tagged produce, frozen foods, ice cream and other perishables. Hy-Vee in now in the process of RFID-enabling its retail stores.

Getting a Read on the Solution
Oberender had been looking for a reusable temperature recorder. When he learned about TempTrip's RFID solution, he knew it would accelerate the receiving process, because it would allow employees to download the tag data at the dock door and run the algorithms on the spot. Then, PDI could reconfigure the devices and use them to monitor shipments to the retail stores. "We had been keeping our eye out for a reusable recorder, because we knew the value it would bring," Oberender says.

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