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A Guide to Sensor-Equipped RFID Tags

Monitoring the temperatures of perishable foods in transit can help keep them fresh and safe. Here's what you need to know to choose the best solution for your company.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 01, 2010—Despite the current locavore trend, many of the perishable foods we consume are not produced locally. For freshness and safety, dairy, meat, poultry, seafood, and fruits and vegetables shipped cross-country or overseas must be monitored closely, to ensure they never fall above or below set temperature ranges. Foods stored and shipped at improper temperatures can lead to waste. "If a grocer turns away an entire truckload of strawberries due to spoilage, that's a $40,000 loss," says Michael McCartney, founder and principal at QLM Consulting, an RFID consulting firm that serves the food industry. More alarming is the threat of food-borne illnesses and deaths that can result when bacteria or viruses grow on temperature-sensitive foods.

Many shipping companies use digital data loggers to monitor individual cases, pallets or containers of perishable foods, because the temperatures within a truck can vary, depending on location and loading patterns. Temperatures also fluctuate as the refrigeration system moves through its cooling cycles or when a truck's doors are opened and closed.

Illustration: iStockphoto
But digital data loggers, which take periodic readings of temperature and/or humidity and record the data, have limited functionality. They require a physical connection to retrieve the information, which is a time-consuming process. And by the time you learn that, say, several pallets fell outside their optimal temperature range while in transit, the damage is already done.

That's why early adopters in the food industry are turning to sensor-equipped RFID tags. These tags can automate the collection of data on environmental conditions, making it more cost-effective. Companies can use trucks equipped with a cellular or satellite communication link and GPS receiver to monitor the locations and environmental conditions of food during transit in real or near-real time. The tags, which generally include lights or audio features, can be set to trigger alerts when they sense conditions that can affect the quality of perishables, so steps can be taken to correct the problem, reroute the shipment to a closer location or advise retailers to sell the goods upon arrival—all of which can lead to safer, more attractive foods, reduced waste and longer shelf life.

"The opportunity to track your products at the pallet or box level is very important," says Maurizio Turri, assistant lab manager at the University of Arkansas' RFID Research Center, which works with companies on cold-chain pilots using sensor-equipped RFID tags. (Cold chain refers to any perishable good in transit, whether it needs to be kept at low or high temperatures.) "The temperature around a thermostat is not necessarily what the product is experiencing," he says.

When RFID Journal first wrote about RFID cold-chain monitoring in 2007, tag costs, reliability and interoperability with retail RFID systems were deterrents (see Cold Chain Heats Up RFID Adoption.). When we revisited the topic in 2008, interoperability was still a concern (see Get a Better Sense of Your Product's Condition.). Today, those issues have been addressed, and real-world deployments are documenting the business case. To ensure a successful implementation of the technology, read the information below. Then check the table on the next page for a list of some of the leading vendors that make sensor-equipped RFID tags for your application.
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