On today’s grocery shelves, it’s commonplace for produce from all over the world to be displayed side by side, regardless of the season. It’s not unusual, in fact it’s expected, to see lettuce or tomatoes from California in New England grocery stores even as the snow begins to fall.
With produce traveling further than ever before from its origin to grocers’ shelves, how can anyone track where each head of lettuce comes from?
Some producers are beginning to do that by affixing new radio frequency identification (RFID) chips to each produce container. The chips can be used to trace a specific batch from the fields to its final destination on supermarket shelves. The technology, widely regarded as an effective step toward better food safety, is precise enough to track produce back to within a few feet of where it was grown.
Once the system achieves what the industry calls “whole-chain traceability,” the use of RFID-type technology should benefit food safety and and improve recall systems, explained Dan Vache, vice president of Supply Chain Management with the United Fresh Produce Association.
Vache said RFID tags enable each step of the entire growth, harvest, processing and distribution chain to be traced efficiently. In the event of a foodborne-illness outbreak or some other issue, “whole chain traceability will limit the scope of a recall, speed up the identification process all the way back to the grower,” minimizing the impact to consumers, Vache said.
Vache has years of supply chain management experience having been involved in multiple industries providing cold chain analytics with services to track and trace products throughout the cold chain from harvest to the backend of retail stores and restaurants.
With RFID tags, he explained, each so-called touch point in the supply chain should capture a minimum of basic data including the date, time and location and ultimately environmental conditions as a product is handled and passed along, from harvest to merchandising.
Eventually, the technology will become so sophisticated that “smart tags” will indicate a product’s shelf life, whether it is beyond its use date or whether it may have been exposed to temperatures that could be damaging, Vache told FSN in an email.
Producers like the Dole Food Company have led the pack in using RFID in the fields that is controlled by handheld, GPS-enabled readers to encode chips with the coordinates of the produce being harvested for a particular bin. Dole uses the RFID program throughout its farms in the Salinas Valley.
Other producers are also using the technology, although it’s not yet widespread.
Vache told FSN that “what we do see is some use of RFID in tracking assets such as pallets” or containers that are eventually reused; in that case the RFID tags are recommissioned for multiple uses.
Once there is sufficient infrastructure for data collection at more perishable food distribution centers, “the use of RFID tags will gain traction” and more producers will be able to handle the volume of data. At that point, the cost per tag should also go down dramatically, Vache said.
RFID chips and tracking systems can be used to track or trace any type of products, not just produce. The chips help industry “gain insight into the total supply chain and enhance supply chain efficiencies,” Vache said. Already, RFID is in play with many products, especially items such as high-end electronics and other hardware items.
As for the future of produce tracking systems? “When RFID reaches critical mass, there will be a tremendous amount of data that when analyzed will take the industry to the next level in process improvements and increased consumer confidence,” Vache predicted.