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RFID Detects Food Safety With Innovation from MIT Media Lab Research

Companies are preparing to test the system to enable the detection of contaminants in food, such as melamine in baby food or methanol in liquor, with off-the-shelf UHF tags and a modified RFID reader.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 20, 2018

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab have developed a solution using passive UHF RFID technology to detect potentially poisonous contaminants in containerized products, such as baby food and liquor. The system, known as RFIQ, employs basic UHF RFID tags, a modified off-the-shelf RFID reader and machine-learning software to interpret the RF response the reader receives from each tag.

According to the researchers, the solution will be tested in real-world settings, following initial tests conducted at the lab. MIT is currently in discussions with several RFID technology companies, as well as food brands and retailers. This month, the firm released a white paper describing the project.

Image courtesy of MIT Media Lab
With the RFIQ system, the reader operates not only as an interrogator, but as a spectroscope, measuring radiant energy (from the tag's response to a transmission) across multiple frequencies within the 400 to 900 MHz bandwidth, then using that energy response to identify what is inside a container. Researchers began developing the system approximately a year ago, says Fadel Adib, an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab and a co-author of the paper describing the technology.

Prior to developing the system, the researchers had been testing RFID for inventory management, and were struck by one of the common challenges posed by UHF RFID technology—namely, that it doesn't operate as effectively in the presence of liquids or metal. If a UHF tag is attached to a bottle of water, for instance, the liquid will absorb enough of the electric field around the tag's antenna that it will not respond in the way it was designed to.

The MIT Media Lab team began to consider whether this characteristic of RFID could help users to understand more about the environment in which a tag was located. "We realized that maybe the fact that it does not always respond indicates something about the material [around the tag] itself," Adib explains. "That led us to thinking, could we use RFID on a container to learn about the contents of the container?" Therefore, the group launched a project to develop a solution that could utilize RFID to detect food-safety issues.

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