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Tracing Food History

Auto-Identification Technology Could Revolutionize Food Safety

 

This article will appear in the online edition of the 2014 Auburn Speaks book about food systems, safety and security; a printed version will be released during Auburn’s Research Week April 14-17. More information about Research Week is available at www.auburn.edu/researchweek.

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Dean Bill Hardgrave

By Bill Hardgrave, Dean of Auburn University's Raymond J. Harbert College of Business

Imagine pointing your smart phone at a head of lettuce in the grocery store and having the phone tell you what farm the lettuce came from and that the produce arrived in the grocery store three days ago. What if your phone could even tell you what temperatures the lettuce was exposed to in transit?

Would you pay extra for that lettuce? You bet I would.

This scenario might sound like science fiction, but the technology already exists. It's called Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, the technology already used by some retailers for inventory control. One employee is able to wave a handheld device, reading the RFID tags on thousands of items and updating the inventory in a few minutes. Or fixed readers located on either side of a dock door can do the same job without human intervention.

RFID is a form of auto-identification, like a bar code or a Quick Response, or QR, code. An RFID tag contains a unique serial number, like a license tag. Many retailers, such as Macy's, Walmart, and American Apparel, use RFID on a variety of items – it helps them keep track of what they have and where they have it.

RFID technology has been around for a while and is used in garage door openers, key fobs, and toll passes, in addition to the rapidly growing use in retail. Those applications are just the tip of the iceberg of how RFID can be used, though. I think the next frontier is tracking food products through the supply chain from the producer to the consumer, helping to guarantee both food safety and food quality.

The technology now exists to track a product from the farm to the customer. If the final product—let's say a package of cinnamon rolls—has a unique identifier, it is theoretically possible to trace back all the way to every raw material that went into that product.

For that to happen, the use of RFID would have to be ubiquitous. Every entity along the supply chain would have to electronically record data— and that means everybody from the small local farmer to the giant wholesaler. Then, all that data would have to be transmitted to a central database that doesn't yet exist.

An RFID tag now costs about 8 cents, and a handheld reader costs a couple of thousand dollars. Is that prohibitively expensive for a small producer? You wouldn't have to put a tag on every tomato. Maybe on every box or pallet of tomatoes.

The cost is probably not prohibitive if large retailers and consumers insist on the ability to know something about a food's history. Many retailers now require clothing suppliers to include RFID tags on items or packaging – if we can do it to track apparel through the supply chain, why not food?

Nor is a centralized database an impossible barrier. The Global Data Synchronisation Network, or GDSN, already enables companies around the globe to exchange standardized and synchronized supply chain data with their trading partners. The data is obtained from bar codes, another form of auto ID, with the data standardized by an industry standards organization called GS1.

Still, a lot of questions would have to be answered. What would the database look like? Who would have access? Should participation be mandated? Might consumers someday push for this kind of system?

Maybe, because such a system could make our food much safer, as well as save millions of dollars for producers, distributors and every entity along the supply chain.

Given the current traceability capabilities, let's say a batch of cookie dough is recalled after testing shows the presence of salmonella. Further, the whole batch was sold to five companies that shipped to 16 distribution centers, which in turn served 3,000 grocery stores. The cookie dough has to be pulled from all 3,000 stores, because there is no way to track the batch with more specificity.

But what if RFID tags were affixed to cases of cookie dough? The cookie dough manufacturer would know the precise date when the bad cookie dough was shipped, the exact cases in which the cookie dough was shipped, and would be able to zero in on only the affected cases shipped that day. Suddenly, those 3,000 stores are narrowed to just 52 stores. The manufacturer would save millions of dollars, and we wouldn't throw away perfectly good food.

Suppose somebody actually gets sick from the cookie dough. Once investigators know where the customer bought the cookie dough, it would be possible to trace back all the way through the supply chain, through the distribution center to the manufacturer and the particular batch.

Finally, the flour in the cookie dough is determined to be the culprit. If an RFID tag were used all the way through production and distribution, the cookie dough manufacturer could determine where the flour used in that batch was processed and where the wheat was grown.

Then trace forward, determining what other products were made with the flour. If people start getting sick from pizza, today those outbreaks would be treated as completely separate. If the ingredients were traceable, you could determine that the flour from the same producer was used in both the pizza and the cookie dough. What's more, you could determine what other products were made using the tainted flour.

With such a system, tracing backwards and forwards through the supply chain, we could save money, save time, and save lives. Today, foodborne illnesses cause 48 million illnesses, with 3,000 people dying every year from tainted food. If we identified tainted food more quickly and got it off the shelves, how many lives could we save?

When people started getting sick from listeriosis last year, cantaloupes were identified as the culprit, but the source of the cantaloupes couldn't be identified immediately. When Colorado's Jensen Farms was finally identified, there was no way to determine which batch of cantaloupes was tainted. Using RFID technology, there would have been a unique identifier on every carton shipped, the recall could have taken place sooner, and officials could have figured out exactly where the bad cantaloupes ended up.

Businesses could save money by implementing RFID technology. When Peter Pan peanut butter was recalled in 2007 because of a salmonella problem in one of its facilities over three years' time, the company had to pull all its peanut butter off shelves across the whole United States. It cost some $50 million to recall and destroy all of that product, and Peter Pan peanut butter was not on grocery shelves for several months. In fact, sales of all peanut butter were down some 25 percent after the recall.

So why aren't big producers lining up to implement RFID technology? I've worked with a lot of them, and they're all concerned about safety. They don't want anyone to get sick and die, but they look at RFID the way the average person looks at buying an insurance policy. Is the cost more than the risk? Will I actually need the insurance?

Nevertheless, recalls are increasing. A food quality manager for a regional supermarket told me they receive more than 300 recalls a year— approximately one a day. And the new Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in January 2011, gives the Food and Drug Administration mandatory recall authority for the first time ever.

The law also seeks to shift the FDA's approach from responding to outbreaks to actually preventing them, and the FDA is charged with developing a food traceability system to quickly track and trace foods as they move through the supply chain. This is going to be tough, and we are working with the Institute of Food Technologists and others to try to find traceability solutions.

The impetus for food companies to use RFID is increasing from another sector, as well. A major insurance company, Hartford Financial Services Group, is encouraging transportation companies to use temperature sensors—another kind of RFID—on pallets and cases of perishable products to lower their insurance rates. Why? Because trucking companies often bear the cost of bad products even though they are not at fault.

These temperature sensors are expensive, costing $4 or $5 per unit. They can be reused, however, and when affixed to a pallet or case they record temperature in real time all along the supply chain. Temperature can be recorded every minute, every hour, or every day, and in different sections of a refrigerated truck—say, near the door as opposed to far back in the interior of the truck.

Let's say lettuce is shipped from California, and the temperature drops below 32 degrees for the first six hours on the truck. When the produce is delivered to the grocery store, it looks fine—but within a short time the lettuce will go bad.

The insurance company, of course, wants to know where along the supply chain the problem occurred. The lettuce producer says the lettuce was fine when he put it on the truck, but the retailer says it went bad in one day. This time, the problem can be traced back to the temperature during transportation. Another time, however, the supplier might have left the product on the dock, where it was exposed to high temperatures for three hours. Another time, the retailer might have left the lettuce on the dock too long after it was delivered.

What if the product were shrimp or fish, and the temperature near the door was 5 degrees higher than it should have been? How would you like to be the consumer who got the shrimp from the pallet near the door? Without RFID temperature sensors you don't know where along the line the product got too hot or too cold.

Until now, RFID temperature sensors utilized nonstandard technology, which made industry-wide adoption difficult because the different technologies were not interoperable. Now, GS1 has standardized the technology.

Although insurance companies and the new Food Safety Modernization Act are pushing the foodservice industry to improve traceability, I think the push will ultimately come from consumers. I think a strong advocacy group will eventually embrace the issue, and a database will be created.

And yes, I think consumers will be willing to pay extra. First, producers, processors, and retailers up and down the line will have to embrace the technology, and a database will have to be created. After that, there's no reason the industry database can't be accessible to every consumer with a smartphone who wants to know where his food really came from—and how safe the food really is.

Editor's Note: This article was written with assistance from Jacqueline Kochak, communications specialist at the Auburn University Food Systems Institute, and it first appeared as: Radio Frequency Identification Shows Promise for Food Safety, Bill Hardgrave, Food Quality & Safety magazine, Volume 19/No. 2, 2012, Wiley.

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Last Updated: Apr. 8, 2014

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