Watch What You Eat

By Mark Roberti

The horsemeat scandal engulfing Europe is evidence that the global food supply chain is just too complex to monitor without RFID and other technologies.


The global economy is based—to a degree larger than most of us ever realized—on trust. Banks trust that when they purchase securitized mortgages, most are good and will be paid. Investors trust that ratings agencies are evaluating investments fairly and honestly. Companies trust that their suppliers are giving them what they ordered. And consumers trust that they are receiving what the package or advertising says they are purchasing.

Most of the time, trust works. But every now and then, something happens that exposes the fact that our trust is misplaced. In 2008, we learned that many mortgages in mortgage-backed securities would never be repaid, and that ratings agencies were not exactly giving investors an honest evaluation of some products. Recently, spot checks conducted by Irish beef inspectors led consumers across Europe to realize that they might not be getting beef when purchasing beef products. In fact, one inspection found that about a third of hamburger meat was composed of horsemeat, and not beef.

How bad is the problem? No one knows for sure, but it is believed that beef sellers are making money by putting cheaper horsemeat into their products and selling them as pure beef. Europol, an organization that usually focuses on international drug trafficking and money laundering, has been brought in to investigate.

The issue here is simple: It is expensive to track every animal using pen and paper, inspect every animal crossing borders, and create a chain of custody showing where the meat used in a particular product originated. Horses are tracked, some via radio frequency identification, but the use of RFID is sporadic. If no one knows what’s happening to horses, it is easy to kill the animals, mix the meat with ground beef and then dispose of the carcasses.

This is not just a question of quality. There is a risk to human health. British officials found that some of the horsemeat contained traces of Phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory painkiller used in racehorses, commonly known as bute. Bute is banned for animals intended for eventual human consumption, because it is potentially harmful in large concentrations.

The world’s food supply chain crisscrosses countries and continents. Monitoring billions of dollars’ worth of food moving from one place to another is impossible with the systems currently being used. This leaves gaping holes for unscrupulous businesses to exploit, potentially putting tens of thousands of people at risk.

The time has come to use RFID and other automatic data-capture technologies to monitor animals and food shipments. I know small farms will say they can’t afford the technology. But tags are becoming cheaper, and there are systems hosted in the cloud that enable users to read tags via their mobile phones and then upload that information, so it can be shared with business partners and government regulators.

I would like to see an international effort to standardize both RFID’s use for food tracking and the systems utilized for sharing data. Tracking the movements of animals from the time they are born until when they are either consumed or buried is already doable—if the political will is there to make it happen. The cost will be a lot less than the cost of having people swear off beef because they no longer trust that what they get is pure and safe.

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.