RFID tags may help improve food safety

RFID tags may help improve food safety

Recent food security scares have triggered public outcries and intense concern. People want to know exactly what is in their food, and what is done to it by whom.

In response, Canada and many other countries are introducing traceability requirements -- records that track all links in the food supply chain, from farmers to processors to retailers to consumers.

In the coming years, entire industries will be affected, and many are looking to RFID to automate tracking.

Regulation emerging in different regions reflects their specific concerns. In the U.S., fear of bioterrorism is high. The 2002 Bioterrorism Act resulted in the introduction of record-keeping rules this year to protect the food supply chain by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In Europe, fierce territoriality -- in addition to extreme concern about mad cow disease -- is the driver. The E.U. wants to extend the World Trade Organization's (WTO) geographical indications to ensure products like Parmesan cheese or Dijon mustard really come from regions in Italy and France.

In Qu├ębec, which is influenced by E.U. general food laws, the Ministry of Agriculture is introducing regulation that will require whole chain traceability for beef and veal products, requiring one-up, one-down tracking -- record-keeping by each intermediary to track where it got its product and where it is shipping it.

At the federal level, the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada agency recently released a policy framework outlining the direction of regulation over the next five years, stating the goal is to make 80 percent of all food products traceable by 2008.

"Traceability just means you need a system of record-keeping. It's a tool identify where products physically are, where they're going and where they've been. It can be done with paper or RFID tags. The government regulations are silent about how you do it -- they are outcome-based," says Justin Sherwood, vice-president of the western region for the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors (CCGD).

The CCGD represents the interests of retail grocers and food service distributors across Canada, including major supermarket chains like Loblaws, Sobeys, and Thrifty Foods. The council is working with the government to develop industry solutions, supply chain best practices and data standards to satisfy regulatory requirements coming down the pipe.

"We looked at the processes and realized every single commodity, every supply chain, had its own definition of traceability and [implementation mechanisms]. So when you get to [the] retail level, it can potentially become a nightmare," Sherwood says. "You would have to support 15-20 ways to track products: beef one way, pork another, chicken yet another, and so on. The retailer would [face] a complete mess of information requirements and systems."

To respond to this issue, the CCGD assembled a grand committee of industry representatives from all sections of the food supply chain. This group developed a consensual draft data standard to consolidate all traceability requirements.

The next step is to establish how accurately and efficiently these requirements can be implemented, and to study technologies that can support them.

The requirements can be implemented in a bar-coded UPC [universal product code] environment, according to Dave Wilkes, senior vice-president of the CCGD. "Traceability currently exists -- what we want now is to increase accuracy and efficiency. Given that we have time before the government imposes deadlines, we are actively looking at RFID," Wilkes says.

He notes that implementing with bar codes could potentially be very expensive. The bar codes themselves are cheaper than RFID tags, but the scanning process can become expensive.

The time and cost to disassemble a palette containing hundreds of products and scanning each item can be prohibitive. "With RFID, we can hopefully run an entire palette through an RFID goal post to collect the same data," he says.

The CCGD recently opened an RFID research center in Markham, Ont. to assess the technology. The center is conducting tests to determine the accuracy rates of RFID, if it functions effectively in conditions where temperature, humidity and other environmental conditions may affect readability, the best place to locate the tags, and so on.

"A fast-moving warehouse can potentially be dealing with thousands of inbound and outbound cases, in three temperature zones, [and] there may be packaging and product interference, and many other factors to consider," says Sherwood.

The CCGD's approach is unique, using a RFID center to drive education, awareness and the development of best practices at an industry level, instead of leaving it to each retailer or company to develop its particular approach.

Instead, the CCGD is working on behalf of all its members to study the cost-benefits.

"There may be RFID cost savings, but there's also investment in the technology. We need to do more research and explore all alternatives," says Wilkes.

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