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Friday, April 16, 2010 2:56:51 AM

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RFID: Food Safety and Product Recalls

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 - RFID Connections

Consumer safety and corporate profits can both benefit from RFID

Bert Moore

The recent recall of 177 products (to date) containing hydrolyzed vegetable protein (a flavor enhancer used in a wide variety of processed food products, such as soups, sauces, chilis, stews, hot dogs, gravies, seasoned snack foods, dips, and dressings) clearly illustrates the vulnerability of the food supply chain -- and the need for companies to understand the many ways that RFID can help to protect consumer safety and minimize the financial impact of product recalls.

To call the modern food supply and distribution channel a "chain" is woefully inadequate -- it's more like a tapestry with dozens and even hundreds of "threads" coming together to produce the final product. Livestock are fed with commercial feed that may contain ingredients from dozens of sources; processed foods contain many different ingredients that may, for any given batch, be sourced from different companies which, in turn, may receive products from many other companies; fresh produce, juices and jams typically come from many different farms and orchards. And this is the same situation in every foreign country from which produce and ingredients are sourced.

The complexity of the food supply tapestry is staggering. Perhaps the wonder is that it functions so well and that retail outlets are stocked with an ever-increasing number of products to satisfy customer demand.

Yet the very scale and complexity of sourcing, processing and distribution means that a single incident of contamination can affect hundreds of products and pose serious health risks for consumers.

There's no need to review the number and variety of food product recalls in the past year...what is important is to understand how the hazards to both public and corporate health can be reduced. Equally important is the fact that there are demonstrated instances where using RFID to provide specific data about the source of products (e.g., Dole "Hearts Delight" packaged salad recall) really does enable smaller, quicker, less costly, and more efficient product recalls.

How can RFID help?

The short form is that RFID can help with every "thread" of the tapestry -- from beginning to end. In other words, RFID can track products and ingredients from "plant" (organic or manufacturing) to plate.

Data on RFID tags can be read without human intervention, can be embedded in containers and pallets (obscured by covering materials), can be applied to fixed locations and moveable equipment (including metal objects), can withstand extremely harsh environments and processes, can be equipped with sensors to detect changes in temperature and humidity and, in short, can provide tracking and monitoring data with a granularity that would be, at best, cumbersome and, at worst, impossible to achieve with any other technology.

Given appropriate data capture and exchange, this granularity allows the traceability and recall of specific lots or batches of contaminated or misprocessed food items. The traceability goes both ways -- from the supplier that identifies the problem to every customer who is affected (and not the ones who aren't) or from the consumer product back through the supply tapestry to the source.

Where can RFID help?

Source ID

Whether the "plant" is one growing in a field or a manufacturing facility, RFID can be used to identify every inch (millimeter) of the thread -- whether it's a specific machine or process, a specific field on a farm, a specific feeding station, a specific refrigerated trailer or a specific pallet.

Lot/batch ID

Most food products are processed in batches -- even continuous processes such as potato chip or candy manufacturing and those as apparently "simple" as orange juice and apple sauce. They can be viewed as "batches" for various reasons: because they contain ingredients from different sources during the day, because operators and conditions change during the course of a day (or shift), or they use fruits and vegetables from different parts of many different farms and orchards.

While a "batch" may not be as clearly defined in these processes as in others -- there will be overlap, for example, when potatoes from a new field are added to the chip making process -- some basic metrics will be able to identify approximately where the batches overlap -- and this overlap perhaps could be considered a separate "mini" batch.

Using RFID to identify all the ingredients that go into a particular batch allows for targeted recalls to minimize public health hazards, limit the financial impact and protect the brand.

The ability to recall two "mini" batches (where there are mixed sources of ingredients) along with the primary batch(es) could eliminate the need to recall full batches before and after the affected batch(es) -- or even an entire day's production -- as a precautionary measure.

Shipping container ID

As product is woven into the tapestry via the distribution/transportation channel, identifying each container with lot/batch information simplifies tracking and product recall. Linking shipping container ID to a specific lot/batch ID (which could include a specific machine or process) means that contaminated or misprocessed items can be quickly traced back to the supplier of the ingredient or product and outward to the distributor or retailer, again, making targeted recalls faster and more efficient.


Linking shipping container ID to pallet ID continues the traceability of an increasing number of the threads in the food supply.

Several of the most recent recalls have been due to contamination from wooden pallets. While synthetic pallets are less likely to absorb harmful bacteria, there are sterilization procedures to ensure the sanitation of both wooden and synthetic pallets. Because hardened RFID tags can withstand all the harsh environments and treatments pallets must undergo in sterilization processes, they can contain a record of the type of material the pallet last contained, who had them, when they were used, and the specific time/date and the sterilization process(es) employed prior to them being re-used.

Tracing pallet contamination can help determine whether contamination came from the production plant/process/batch or whether it came from the pallet itself. If the pallet proves to be the source, then tracing all pallets that have similar use histories and similar sterilization processes on a particular date or dates can identify all companies that might have shipped product on the affected pallets. In other words, contaminated pallets could affect completely different products manufactured or shipped by different companies and pallet history information can be used to identify those companies and products.

Environmental ID

Sensor-equipped RFID tags affixed to selected pallets or parts of loads can provide critical data to identify potential contamination or spoilage due to fluctuations in temperature, humidity, light or shock. These tags can provide data that can be used throughout the "weave" -- in handling, initial warehousing, shipping, transportation, receiving, and storage -- no matter how many times the product is handled, shipped and stored before reaching the consumer.

Trailer ID

Pallet IDs associated with RFID trailer IDs can not only provide traceability of the product from shipping to receiving but, when coupled with GPS and RFID security seals, can monitor the product in transit to identify any potential point of delay, diversion or tampering. Dirty trailers or those previously used to transport toxic, hazardous or incompatible materials could also be a source of contamination. The ability to determine that the trailer itself was the source of the problem could result in a very small product recall (and provide critical warnings to other shippers about the problems with the trailer).

Distribution ID

As the tapestry begins to be unwoven to get product to the consumer, as product moves through wholesalers, distributors, third parties, etc., the RFID tags on trailers, sensor data, tags on pallets and shipping containers can be read to follow each thread to its ultimate destination.

During product recalls, suppliers can notify customers of the recall. More importantly, retailers can simply check their logs of incoming goods to see if they have any of the affected products in their store rooms or on their shelves. Reading the RFID tags on shipping containers that are brought to the sales floor could narrow the time-frame during which the recalled products were on their shelves.

In an ideal scenario, retailers would be able to use customer loyalty card and POS data to determine who might have purchased affected products and notify them by e-mail, phone or the next time they visit the store.


The ways in which RFID can be used to support food safety are nearly as varied and complex as the food supply tapestry itself.

Two facts, however, are quite simple. The food supply needs to be better protected. And RFID can help.


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