RFID Can Help Food Industry Prevent Illness Outbreaks: Report

ABI Research has published a report on how RFID technology can help trace food spoilage and prevent outbreaks of illness.

ABI Research has released a new report, called "RFID-Enabled Food Safety and Traceability Systems," that explores how the Food Safety Modernization Act affects use of RFID in the food industry.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed by President Obama on Jan. 4, calls for a shift in the FDA's focus toward new food traceability rules aimed at preventing food contamination, rather than responding to specific instances of food-borne illness.

The new legislation will establish a more standardized way to trace food items, Bill Arnold, principal analyst for RFID and barcode scanning at ABI Research, told eWEEK. "There's a lot more emphasis on establishing a standardized food traceability system," Arnold said.

The FDA has selected standards from the nonprofit organization GS1 to monitor products in the food supply. GS1 is a global body that has developed standards to improve efficiency and visibility in supply chains for health care and other industries.

"RFID has the ability to play a data-gathering role in the whole area of food safety and in the prevention of disease outbreak," Arnold said.

Automatic data collection RFID tags with sensors can detect and record if at any time the temperature for a container of vegetables hits 40 degrees Fahrenheit rather than the ideal 34 degrees, or if berries get too cold and freeze rather than remaining at the acceptable 34 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit, Arnold explained.

The data delivered by wireless technology also provides more flexibility for grocers, according to Arnold.

"If you're a grocer and you get a load of produce, today your only option is to accept or reject an entire load," he said. "With this more granular information, you can accept the pallets with acceptable temperature limits maintained and reject just those that had a problem."

With 48 million cases of food-borne illness occurring in 2010 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mobile device manufacturers may look to make a bigger push toward using RFID devices to improve food safety.

Technology such as RFID allows the food industry to trace products and record environmental conditions in the complete food supply chain.

The food industry could also possibly find ways to save some of the $35 billion a year in wasted produce, Arnold said. And it can help the food industry avoid outbreaks of serious illness, like the one that required a massive recall of tomatoes due to salmonella poisoning in 2008.

Potential RFID customers include large retail grocery chains and also food brands such as Hawaiian Tropic and Chiquita.

Prepackaged food company Dole Food has also been in the news in the past for a 2005 E. coli scare stemming from recalled bags of lettuce, and the company is an early adopter of RFID products for use in fresh produce temperature monitoring.

"They're in the early stages looking into how they use RFID in a data collection system to prevent recalls and provide enhanced freshness all at the same time," Arnold said.

Manufacturers of RFID systems include mobile device leaders such as Motorola and RFID manufacturers like Intelleflex.

"Intelleflex gives cold-chain providers the tools they need to actively manage product in-transit-resulting in reduced shrink, higher-product quality and safety verification-and improve efficiency throughout the cold chain," Peter Mehring, CEO of Intelleflex, said in a statement. Intelleflex recently ran an RFID trial at the Hawaii Department of Agriculture in Honolulu.

Another player in the RFID food supply market is Australia's Ceebron, which makes a line of proprietary Smart-Trace data recorders that connect to cellular networks.

Sensors in RFID tags monitor the temperature and humidity of products, and RFID readers can transmit the data using WiFi, Ethernet, Bluetooth or industrial mobile data collection terminals.

With existing cellular infrastructures in place, costs of implementing RFID should be manageable, Arnold suggested.

"A lot of this is possible because you can use existing infrastructure for communication networks," he said. "You probably wouldn't want to cover a whole farm with WiFi access points, but you have cell phone communications just about everywhere, so the data can be collected constantly from point of harvest to delivery at the retailer."