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RFID: The Key to Safer, Fresher Produce

An FDA mandate coupled with the proven benefits of temperature monitoring could drive adoption in a sector that's been slow to embrace the technology.
By Jennifer Zaino
Dec 01, 2011—Since July 29, people in 12 states have died after eating cantaloupe contaminated with Listeria, and more than 135 people from 28 states have been infected with the bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It took until Sept. 14 for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to confirm it had traced the multistate outbreak to Jensen Farms, in Colorado. This summer, Europe also experienced a deadly food outbreak, when an unusually lethal strain of E. coli claimed the lives of 50 people in Germany and sickened thousands more in neighboring countries, according to the World Health Organization. German authorities first stated the bacteria had originated in produce grown in Spain, and although that proved to be incorrect, Spanish farmers lost millions of dollars in sales.

Unfortunately, such tragedies are not uncommon. Roughly 48 million Americans get ill from food-borne disease each year, and some 3,000 people die, according to the CDC. In January, President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which for the first time gives the FDA mandatory recall authority for all food products. The FDA has not yet finalized traceability regulations for implementation and won't actually prescribe what technology to use. "Right now, people are looking at RFID as a cost-effective way to implement the food trace-back requirements to meet the new mandate," says Michael McCartney, principal at QLM Consulting.

Photo: iStockphoto
Indeed, for the past several years, produce suppliers, researchers and technology providers have been piloting RFID projects to track perishable foods from the field to retail, to provide traceability in the event of a recall. After having to recall all its packaged spinach following an E. coli outbreak in 2006 that sickened 200 people, Dole Foods started RFID-tracking vegetables from harvest, through processing and packaging, and on to stores.

More recently, the development of RFID tags equipped with temperature sensors has led some food producers to monitor shipments to keep perishables fresh and safe. Some $35 billion of food is wasted each year, half of it because of temperature mismanagement, according to a study by the University of Florida Food Distribution and Retailing Lab. For each hour a strawberry spends at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, for example, shelf life decreases by a day. Driscoll's, in the United States, and Bionest, in Spain, are among the early adopters using RFID to monitor strawberry temperatures.

To date, costs, particularly for small farmers, have hampered widespread use of RFID to monitor perishable foods. Now, the need to comply with traceability regulations, coupled with the benefits of temperature tracking, could drive the technology's adoption. Meanwhile, researchers are exploring ways RFID could help farmers increase crop yields, and some supply-chain partners are identifying RFID applications that can improve efficiencies in their operations.
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