RFID’s Role in Food Safety

By Mark Roberti

With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration taking a more aggressive role in preventing outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, it might be time for growers to embrace new technology.

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed two new rules for the food and beverage sector. The new rules are part of the agency's implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in January 2011, following several serious outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in the United States. The regulations proposed by the agency require importers to take greater responsibility for the food they bring into the country, essentially shifting the burden of inspection from the FDA to private companies.

It's not clear exactly how these rules will be enforced, or whether the FDA will issue additional traceability requirements. But it is certain that companies will need to do a better job of ensuring that food is not contaminated, and provide a way to quickly trace the origin of any food items that are.

In the past, this would have placed a huge burden on businesses. Requiring workers in foreign nations to scan unique bar codes on cases of fruit originating on different farms would have been unrealistic. Not only do bar codes require human intervention, but they are also rendered useless by mud.

RFID technology can automate data collection. Passive tags on plastic containers can be read as the containers are loaded onto trucks, while GPS data can be linked to those reads, so that every product's origin is recorded. Battery-assisted temperature sensors, meanwhile, can make sure that the goods are stored at the proper temperature as they move through the supply chain.

I realize that for farmers—particularly small farmers—the cost of deploying an RFID solution could provide to be a hurdle. The FDA will not mandate a specific technology, so smaller farms could employ bar codes on cases and RFID temperature-sensing tags on pallets, in order to reduce costs. This would provide pallet-level traceability, as well as temperature data for both the pallet and the cases stored on it.

The FSMA gives the FDA the ability to mandate recalls. These are expensive, and can be financially devastating to growers, as well as to distributors. Greater food traceability might cost farmers more in the near term, but if it enables them to pinpoint the origin of contaminated food quickly, then it could help companies avoid a recall—and save them a lot of money in the long term.

Is it worth the investment in new technology? I know many struggling farms might not agree, but I believe RFID can make financial sense. What's more, it could help protect the public from contaminated foods, and help food marketers avoid costly recalls that would otherwise tarnish their valuable brand names.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.