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Keeping Fresh Foods Fresh

Produce, meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products often travel cross-country or between continents before ending up on store shelves. Given this lengthy journey, using RFID to improve food safety and shelf life has become a top priority for suppliers and retailers.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Feb 01, 2006—In the expansive fields of Salinas, Calif., and Yuma, Ariz., farmworkers cut each head of lettuce, wrap it in a bag and place it in a reusable plastic container that holds 24 heads. They have been following the same process for decades until last year, when the management of Tanimura & Antle (T&A), their employer, added a new step.

After packing a container with lettuce, farmworkers now apply a label with an RFID tag containing a unique Electronic Product Code to the container's side. Once enough containers are packed to form a pallet, another RFID tag is applied to the pallet.

RFID has the potential to dramatically reduce losses from spoilage in the food industry.

The RFID tags, provided by a third-party supplier, are already encoded and the labels printed prior to the harvest crews' use. The EPC numbers of the container and pallet tags are correlated with data identifying the field where the lettuce grew, the crew, the time the heads were picked and which driver took them to the refrigerated warehouse.

At the warehouse, the pallets and containers are unloaded and passed by an RFID interrogator; the tag information is entered into a database. In the past, the first load to arrive at the warehouse was the first to get cooled. Now T&A is using RFID to give priority to cooling the first load cut.

"The faster we can get that product cooled down to 34 to 36 degrees, the longer its shelf life," says Tom Casas, T&A's vice president of IT. "For each hour of delay in cooling, you could significantly decrease the shelf life of lettuce."

In late 2004, T&A volunteered to participate in an RFID pilot run by Wal-Mart, the world's largest retail chain, which had required its top 100 suppliers to begin tagging pallets and cases of goods in January 2005. T&A isn't one of Wal-Mart's top 100 suppliers, but the company sells 34 different products to Wal-Mart and wanted to keep its business.
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